Don Juan (1926)

The OG Playboy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be “A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen”. Well, this self-gratification didn’t aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 – not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don’t add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can’t blame them.

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Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother’s infidelity and his father’s response to such – there’s more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?

In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However, in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history’s infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.

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Among the film’s supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan’s amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan’s residence and reassuring each one that she is “the love of his life”. Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There’s no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it’s great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.

My one major downside to Don Juan is that I’m left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film’s money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan’s dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It’s filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.

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Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920’s makeup despite its 15th-century setting). In the words of John Hammond – “We spared no expense”. Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn’t do them justice.

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.

Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper-class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However, there is a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the center of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender-bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship, however, Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self-improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective presence in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of lovemaking with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.