Gone With The Wind (1939)

The Great American Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

GWTW

The Great American Movie

So it’s about time I finally got around to reviewing the big cheese itself, the towering achievement of American cinema, those four glorious syllables – Gone With The Wind.

Gone With the Wind testament to how much filmmaking had changed in just 10 years from the beginning to the talkie period. From the astounding cinematic shots such as the long take of the bodies of fallen soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta to those red Technicolor skies which I could stare at all day and huge matte paintings which are hard to distinguish from real sets – it’s a world to get lost in (I can even ignore the very clear continuity error at the beginning of the film when it goes from dusk back to early evening to dusk again). Even those opening titles themselves are breathtaking, let alone for a time when opening titles where a basic on-screen title card.

Gone With the Wind is a film with a fascinating history as it’s backdrop. The pink elephant in the room however for many modern viewers is the troublesome historical image of the American South both pre and post-antebellum, whether just or unjust. The emphasis on the Wilkes family marrying their cousins doesn’t help things but the real but the real point of contention is the dreaded “R” word, racism. To dismiss Gone With the Wind as a racist film is such a reductive argument, especially when certain commentators liken it to The Birth of a Nation, a film which shows black members of the House of Representatives eating fried chicken. To actually watch Gone With the Wind and study it closely, the way the film examines the racial issues is more 3 dimensional than popular critique contends.

Gone With the Wind is told from the point of view of slave owners who don’t see anything wrong with owning slaves (nor is it ever made clear if the plantation owners start paying their former slaves following the end of the war). The slave owners are a product of their time which the movie doesn’t pass judgment on. Only one line of dialogue in the film deals with the question of morality when it comes to slavery in which Ashley responds to Scarlett’s use of prisoners for labour which implies Ashley sees nothing wrong with slavery providing the slaves are treated well;

“Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labour and misery of others”

“You won’t so particular about owning slaves”

“That was different; we didn’t treat them that way

I find by far the most interesting aspect the portrayal of race in Gone With The Wind is the stark contrast between the black carpetbaggers (northerners who came to the south following the war who were perceived to be exploiting the local populace) and the recently freed slaves who are still childlike, dim-witted and happy to help out their masters of whom they are dependent on. The first black carpetbagger seen in the film features a sharply dressed, liberated northern black man traveling with a white accomplish but more significantly, in a scene not long after this Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) sneers at a pair of African-American carpetbaggers who are wearing fancy suits, smoking cigars and laughing. Mammy, who just had to beg for money along with Scarlett, sneers at this black men having the time of their lives. While the phrase is not used in the movie, these individuals would be referred to in many quarters as “Uncle Toms”, perceived sellouts to their black brethren. The appearance of independent, well to do black men from the North goes against the narrative of Gone With The Wind being a racist film. I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Gone With the Wind or how well it portrayed the time and place it depicts but there’s too much nuance within the film’s depiction to simply shout “wasis!” rather than having a more productive conversation or what the film did or did not do right. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

The film’s opening prologue and the scenic shots of Tara could be seen as Confederate propaganda with its Utopian presentation of a world alongside the opening prologue which reads;

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”

Yet if there’s any authorial or filmmaking intent to propagate Confederate lost cause mythology (historical revisionism that the Confederacy’s cause during the civil war was a just and heroic one) is countered by much of the film’s content. There’s no explicit condemnation of slavery or the confederacy but does the movie have to do this? The biggest Uncle Tom in Gone With The Wind in Scarlet O’Hara herself for doing business with the northern carpetbaggers in order to save Tara and rise above poverty. What makes Scarlett O’Hara a character I can empathize with? By many accounts, I shouldn’t as she’s bratty, entitled and manipulative, yet you can’t help but admire her desire to survive and make better of herself despite what onlookers might say (her gumption as Margret Mitchell describes it). Scarlet is shown to have little interest in the southern cause (as does Rhett Butler). This is memorably symbolized in the shot in which war has just been announced as everyone runs frantically through the foyer of Twelve Oaks and Scarlett angrily walks by them as if they aren’t even there. Really the one cause Scarlett is dedicated to is that set of her family of Irish immigrants who came to America and accomplished the American Dream of owning land (“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for”).

Gone With The Wind is one of few films in which every character, no matter how minor is significant in their own way, with Star Wars or The Ten Commandments being one of few other films which achieve this. Now if only I could do without Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the most cowardly, unlikeable characters ever – and that nails on chalkboard voice! Thankfully Scarlett gives her a good slap.

Then there’s my boy, Rhett Butler; the cinematc embodiment alongside Han Solo and Indiana Jones of masculinity and individualism (and what an introductory shot!). Men want to be him and women want to be with him. A man out for himself and a realist doesn’t really believe in the Confederate cause and is by far the most self-aware character in the film. In a defining scene Rhett points out how the south isn’t equipped for war while the other southern gentlemen are blinded by illusions of grandeur and he’s not afraid to call them out on it, while remaining a gentleman the whole time and removes himself from the meeting after the other gentlemen feel insulted by his comments. Even when Rhett joins the Confederate Army near the end of the war as he describes himself as having a weakness for lost causes, he’s still self-aware of how foolish his actions are. Just before Rhett leaves Scarlet at the carriage after escaping from Atlanta, the film treats us to what I consider the greatest kiss in film history with its layers on intensity; melodramatic dialogue, sweeping music, and the blood-red sky.

Rhett’s actions do however lead to one scene which gets many viewers in a tussle; Rhett’s drunken marital rape of Scarlett after she refuses to have sex with him. Not to mention Scarlett is seen the following the morning have enjoyed the experience! I don’t believe however the film at all rewards or gratifies Rhett for his actions and subtlety condemns it. Not only does Rhett show remorse for his actions the following morning, but the rape is also the final act which leads to the destruction of a marriage which was already on shaky ground.

Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes who is in many ways the counterpoint of Rhett Butler as the tender, effeminate, proud southerner (with a transatlantic accent, go figure). Ashley is a romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the old south. Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the reconstruction era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no goals or ambitions for the future. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those old days.

Rounding out the film’s four main cast members is Olivia de Havilland in her undersung performance as Melanie Wilkes, crossing the line of being saintly without ever being sickly. Did she know about Scarlett and Ashley or not? Was she really a saint, or just naive, or perhaps exceptionally wise? Scarlet is the sister Melanie always wanted with each of them possessing qualities the other lacked, especially during their bond over joint survival during and after the war. Scarlett saved Melanie’s life and Melanie kept her cool under fire in a way that earned Scarlett’s private (though reluctant) admiration. She also did not hesitate to do hard work she never would have had to touch before the war. She was, therefore, more valuable to the family’s survival than Scarlett’s two sisters. The speculative question of whether Melanie knew about Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley. Perhaps Melanie knew she could trust Ashley while seeing that Rhett was the right man for Scarlett by trying to promote their relationship.

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Night Flight (1933)

picmonkey_image-31

Par Avion

Night Flight is possibly the most forgotten all-star ensemble film ever made, thanks in no small part to the movie being withdrawn from public circulation for 69 years due to a copyright dispute. Although an all-star picture, Night Flight belongs to John Barrymore. The sight of him strutting and giving monologues in front of a giant map of South America is a magnificent sight to behold. He has the Warren William type role as a flight director for a Trans-Andean European airmail company in which he goes to extreme lengths to get the job complete while trying not to let empathy get mixed in. As a viewer I’m left to question are his actions justified or is he taking things too far? Considering the perils of early aviation should he even be sending men out at night and in such terrible conditions to deliver mail? However, he claims if they don’t send planes out to fly at night then the train service will overtake them and make the outfit an unviable business. He will even go to unethical measures such as lying to a pilot that there was nothing wrong with his engine after he reported otherwise to remove any fear he had. As seen in the film Command Decision starring Clark Gable, running an outfit like this you will have to make decisions which will make you unpopular. – “Ask the impossible, demand it!”

Viewers may be disappointed to find out Clark Gable has a mere four lines of dialogue in the entire film. Although this makes sense as the role doesn’t lend itself to many speaking opportunities as he is confined to the cockpit of a two-person plane in which communication is best carried out by passing written notes to each other – As a result, Gable’s scenes play out like a silent film. That said it wouldn’t be fair to say Gable is put to waste as the movie does a good job at increasing the tension of these scenes throughout the course of the film as the plane runs out of gasoline and encounters terrible weather conditions.

Robert Montgomery has the film’s most interesting character arc. It’s clearly evident that the guy is into prostitutes and during a particularly impressive sequence in which he comes close to death flying through a canyon in the Andes, he has to come to terms with this experience after landing. Thus he ends up favouring a friendly night with a very itchy Lionel Barrymore over booze and hookers. After he refuses to be called for duty on another flight his character disappears and we never find out what happens to him. Night Flight would also be one of Myrna Loy’s earliest ventures into the role of the perfect wife, going from the exotic to another form of typecasting, but there is no denying nobody could do it better than her.

Night Flight is full of picturesque luminosity in this rare non-Cedric Gibbons design at MGM. The film also stands out for its prevalent use of Star Wars style transitions and even one particular sequence which looks very much like the intro to the TV soap Dallas in this favourable and idealised representation of a much westernised South America in which there is little showcase of poverty.

The structure in Night Flight is held together by a subplot in which a serum package that has to be delivered across the continent in order to save a child’s life (the movie pulls no punches in the opening by showing a child’s funeral). No one involved in the flying, however, is aware of this package yet it turns out this was by accident rather than design as the inclusion of the serum package subplot was an afterthought. Producer David O’Selznick thought the film didn’t have enough tension and had these additional scenes inserted after the film was shot. However, I found this does succeed in holding the film together more. Likewise original cut of Night Flight ran at over two hours with the release version being 85 minutes – who knows what was left out?

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Melodrama’s so much fun, in black and white for everyone to see.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A gangster movie starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, thankfully I was not disappointed. Watching these three titans of classic Hollywood in action (and sadly the only picture in which Gable and Powell appeared together), Manhattan Melodrama not only had me enthralled from beginning to end, it’s hypnotizingly good. Gangsters, dames, urbanites, class and sophistication, this movie encompasses elements of 1930’s cinema which I’m a sucker for – and yes, the film has the word melodrama in the title, something that would never happen in contemporary cinema.

The Angels With Dirty Faces style plot allows for poignant social commentary, with Powell as a district attorney trying to avoid corruption and not allowing his personal feelings to affect his decisions. William Powell’s performance as Jim Wade is the best I’ve seen him deliver; just listen to the emotional plea he gives during the movie’s courtroom scene. His character is essentially a fantasy, an elected member of government who’s entirely honest. When Wade goes against his ethics and engages in cronyism he tells the truth to the public and resigns from office rather than trying to desperately cling onto power. There’s doubt Powell had a real knack for playing lawyers and elected members of office.

Not to undo Gable as Blackie Gallagher, the manner in which he acts during the film’s final third is simply heartbreaking as he constantly jokes around despite being sentenced to the electric chair in the film’s finale. The ending of this movie just kills me as Wade’s friend since childhood is sentenced to death; it’s near the top of my list of all time tear-jerking scenes, pure cinematic tragedy. The lights of prison even dim as the switch is pulled, the ever classic cliché. In real life that doesn’t actually happen but in the film it is the final tug of the heartstrings. Also, it seems hard to believe now that Mickey Rooney would play a child version of Clark Gable but in 1934 audiences couldn’t have seen what he would turn out to be as an adult.

Does there exist an actress who doesn’t have great chemistry with Clark Gable or even any actor for that matter? Manhattan Melodrama is the first of fourteen screen pairings of Powell and Loy, and their first scene together couldn’t be more perfect, in which she falls into his lap in the back seat of a car as she starts to deliver exposition in the most adorable manner.

MGM is not generally associated with the gangster genre. Manhattan Melodrama doesn’t have the grit of Warner Gangster films but works in its own style of MGM’s glossy high production values and ranks as one of the best gangster films I’ve seen from the 1930’s. The movie seems to be more famous for being the last movie seen by gangster John Dillinger, who was shot by federal agents as he exited a Chicago movie theater. His reason for going to see the movie, apparently he was a Myrna Loy fan. The love of Loy killed John Dillinger, I guess I can’t blame him.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah, the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to the way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream-like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic, to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed-up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The subplot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed-up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography, Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other storyline which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two characters would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.