Few YA books are as daring as E.L. Koningsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a thinking book. It’s also an unthinking book.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Claudia Kincaid is an upstate New York girl with three brothers who feels like there’s nothing to set her apart from the crowd. She and her younger brother, Jaime, run away to New York City, but because Claudia hates discomfort and loves novelty, they camp out at the Met, where they sleep in Amy Robsart’s bed from 1560, bathe in the fountain, and have the run of the place after everyone’s gone home. They’re not going to stay away forever, but just long enough to have an adventure.
Since Jaime’s a bit of a hustler, they’ve got a nice little nest-egg of twenty-four dollars, or about one hundred eighty-eight today. After a splurge in the museum cafeteria, the kids live off of samples from the Macy’s gourmet food counter and Automat meals. They stuff their dirty underwear in their pockets and wash them at the laundromat. When their money starts to run low they mine the fountain for coins.
One night Claudia discovers an angel statue and instantly feels a connection to it. She calls it “Angel” and spends as much time as she can looking at the statue, keeping track of it when the statue is moved from one part of the museum to another. What really gets the wheels in Claudia’s head turning is seeing the imprint left by the statue on its old pedestal–three interlinked rings and the letter ‘M.’
Claudia is sure Angel was carved by Michaelangelo, so she and Jaime send an anonymous letter to the Met’s president asking him about it. His answer: The jury is still out.
Our intrepid art lovers keep digging, and find out Angel was donated by a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an avid New York art collector and longtime recluse. Feeling like the Met has betrayed them, Claudia and Jaime take a taxi to her house to meet her. Will she shed light on the mystery? Will she even see them? And how are Claudia and Jaime going to get home, since the cab ride used up all their extra money?
Mixed-Up Files doesn’t fail to grab kids, not only because kids love museums, but the idea of camping out in a museum is the stuff delighted shivers are made of. Who knows what Night At the Museum-esque shenanigans might take place when it’s only the night watchman striding around? Claudia and Jaime pushing aside the velvet ropes and the “Do Not Touch” card to sleep in a Middle Age bed is even more unthinkable. There won’t be any sheets on the bed and possibly not even a mattress, but who cares, right?
However, the book expects more of its readers. I like that it doesn’t really glamorize running away. It makes it clear that Claudia and Jaime were hungry and lonely for their family, who they eventually go back to. When it comes down to it, learning is the book’s main emphasis. Once Claudia discovers Angel, she senses unique knowledge to be gained and she wants to be the one to discover it because it’s special to her.
Elaine Lobl Koningsburg had first-hand experience with unique knowledge. Born in Manhattan in 1930, she lived in Pennsylvania and loved visiting New York with her family. While she had a degree in chemistry, a career in science didn’t pan out, as Koningsburg was a wee bit accident prone. As her son, Paul, told Smithsonian Magazine, she blew up her share of sinks and even lost her eyebrows on more than one occasion.
Where Koningsburg really excelled was in art and writing, starting the former when she and her family lived in Port Chester, New York. She also took an art class in Manhattan every Saturday, dropping her kids off at the Met.
Her inspiration for Files came from several sources. In 1965 the Met bought a statue for $225 that was supposedly either carved by Leonardo da Vinci or his teacher, Andrea del Verrochio. According to the Smithsonian, the statue was determined to be a da Vinci, but from what I can tell, its whereabouts are unknown. The only da Vinci sculpture I could find is the “Virgin and the Laughing Child,” which da Vinci crafted as a student, and it’s not owned by the Met.
Another big inspiration was when Koningsburg discovered a piece of popcorn sitting on a priceless blue silk chair while on a tour of the Met. She wondered if someone had sneaked in for a nice snack some night.
Koningsburg and her children started research in earnest. The Met allowed them to take Polaroids as long as they didn’t use a flash, and they went over the museum with a fine-tooth comb. And no, they didn’t bathe in the fountain. Koningsburg used many of the photos as models for her illustrations, which are incredibly accurate, although there have been some changes to the museum since Koningsburg’s novel was published.
Mixed-Up Files received the 1968 Newbury Medal, one of two awards Koningsburg won that year, and naturally Hollywood came calling. The Hideaways, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler premiered at Radio City Music Hall in 1973, having the distinction of being the first movie shot at the Met.
As always, there were changes made. The biggest difference between the book and the film is that the book is told from the point of view of Mrs. Frankweiler, who writes it as if she’s talking to Saxonburg, who’s her lawyer instead of her butler. She’s not really present in the film until the last thirty minutes or so, which keeps the film from the kids’ point of view.
Other than that, it’s a pretty straight retelling and an underrated family movie, albeit with some oddball filming angles and some bad ADR overdubs. When Claudia tells Jaime that they’ll be staying at the Met, there’s a grand shot of the museum with a grand fanfare of music. Or the shot would be grand if it didn’t get covered up by fountain sprays a second or two after the big reveal. It’s like “Move that bus!” in reverse.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Thankfully, the movie gets better from that point on.
Claudia and Jaime were played by Sally Prager and Johnny Doran, respectively, and they put in great performances. They looked like they were having a blast making the film, except for the fountain scene. Prager said she felt like a fool walking around in her underwear.
The big gimmick is, of course, Mrs. Frankweiler, not that she was any secret. Bergman was given top billing despite her brief appearance, and she’s fantastic here. She’s severe at first but a good sport, playing War with Jaime and serving the kids mac and cheese out of a silver casserole dish. She’s made up older for the part, hobbling around with a cane, although she climbs stairs pretty nimbly. And she beautifully sums up Koningsburg’s aim for her story:
“One of the greatest adventures in life is to know something nobody else knows. Something that makes you different, where it really counts, inside yourself. If you let it grow inside of you it will touch and color everything in your life.”
Files has been remade as a TV movie with Lauren Bacall and figured slightly in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but it’s tough to top the original novel and film. The Met still intrigues as well. Kids to this day come to the Met hoping to trace Claudia and Jaime’s steps. The museum looks different than it did back then and New York isn’t the same city, but there are still remnants of the fantasy the Kincaid children lived. As long as kids love museums and there is a thirst for knowledge, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will enthrall and excite.
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