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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Queen Christina (1933)

picmonkey_image-4

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.

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

Revolution 1789

To my surprise Start the Revolution Without Me begins with none other than Orson Welles introducing the film as well as narrating it; this along with the stylistic opening credits featuring footage of John Barrymore in Don Juan I know I had to be in for a treat. Start the Revolution Without Me is largely unheard of but surely paved the way for other large-scale historical comedies of the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; a type of film comedy which is long extinct. The recurring repetition of the date “1789” in the narration has vibes of Monty Python while the film’s ending reminds me of that from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Likewise, the film is probably the closest thing to a spoof of costume dramas; think the costume drama getting the Mel Brooks treatment. The film includes references to works of fiction including A Tale of Two Cities, The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask (portrayed here as a bumbling fool). With the film’s historical references, King Louis XVI is a slow-witted cuckold and Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a nymphomaniac.

The production spared no expense getting the shoot in actual historical locations in France. You would think they would only allow such locations for more dignified films, not a slapstick comedy. The film itself is as lavish as any big-budget costume drama but not in tone of course. Costume pictures are always a genre I’ve struggled with, dare I say I find them dull with characters I can’t identify with or care about; you know, rich people problems. Thus there’s a sense of satisfaction seeing the genre turned into a slapstick farce. Not only do you get an impressive display of madcap physical comedy, but you even get some swashbuckling action with Gene Wilder getting the opportunity to display his abilities as a swordsman.

Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth resulting in an aristocrat with a false brother who was supposed to be born into life as a peasant and vice versa. I get the impression Sutherland plays the twins intended to be aristocrats as they seem more comfortable and in tune with the lifestyle than the two twins played by Wilder. Mistaken identity humour is often looked down upon but it makes laugh whenever it is done well. Start the Revolution Without is inspired zaniness if I’ve ever seen it.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur, I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of Roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying to dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion.

The story also includes that age-old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall off the roof during the Roman parade and killed the governor then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words of “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people were actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators nor was any rear screen projections used; it’s all the real deal. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen; the chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful, wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective in which lifeboats full of extras were used rather than the remake’s use of miniatures and rear projection shots. Not to mention the 1925 sequence is more brutal, with people being tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the Roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing pair of sequences in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister are cured instantly via a miracle? Regardless, such use of Deus Ex Machina does not hurt my enjoyment of Ben-Hur.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Few other cinematic experiences are as immensely satisfying as MGM’s 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty. Loosely based on the mutiny on board the HMS Bounty in the South Pacific on April 28th, 1789 (although at the end of the day how can any of us really know what happened on board that vessel over 200 years ago), the actual build-up to the seizing of the ship is just gloriously immense.

Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist, and a tyrant with no reverence for his convicts and low lives in his crew. With his arrogant stance, a face like a dead fish and his bushy eyebrows, it’s hard to stress just how much I love this performance; shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Miiiister Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments (which even go as far as leading to the death of some shipmen), it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate the Napoleon-complexed bully with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. There’s just something about angry, tyrannical ship captains which make for such memorable storytelling trope (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts, Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf).

Laughton’s performance as Bligh is not merely a caricature, however. Bligh is shown to have a human side which is expressively shown with the friendship he shares with the King of Thatti, Hitihiti (Bill Bambridge) – the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh with his crew and take a more liberal attitude. We don’t know why Bligh is the way is he, but it’s clear he’s very selective with whom he shows his respect and loyalties too. Whenever Bligh is on the lifeboat away from the convicts and lower dregs of society following the mutiny and only surrounded by his most loyal officers, suddenly he’s a great morale booster and a competent captain.

Second billed after Laughton is The King of Hollywood himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!”. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hands of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances fighting for dominance of the screen. This was Gable’s first role in a historical film and he fits well into the period even with his apparel of knee breeches probably being the most effete thing he’s ever worn on screen and his lack of an English accent (but ultimately this never gets in the way). It’s just a shame Gable would never again do an adventure role in the vein of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The complexity of Fletcher Christian comes from whether the character can be classified as a hero or a coward for his enacting of a mutiny. Christian could have tried to keep the crew’s lives as bearable as possible until they returned to England. On the other hand Bligh, on top of being tyrannical and corrupt, is responsible for the death of crew members. Was Christian justified in his action? It’s a question which the movie has no clear answer for (”From now on, they’ll spell mutiny with my name. I regret that, but not the taking of the ship. Every time think of Bligh, well I’d do it again”). When the mutineers celebrate the taking of the ship, Christian doesn’t part take in their exuberance and has a look of confliction on his face. For the mutineers they had noting waiting for them back in England, Christian, on the other hand, is throwing away his navel career, became a criminal and betrayed the crown in the process.

This question of whether a mutiny can be justified is also notably examined in Herman’s Wouk’s novel and subsequent film adaptation The Caine Mutiny, and there are quite a few plot threads connecting these two films together. In Mutiny on the Bounty Midshipman Byam sees a tall ship and asks if it is the Bounty, only to be disappointed when he’s directed to a much smaller ship; likewise Ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny spots a new vessel and asks if it is the Caine, only to be directed to a rusty old minesweeper. In Mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh obsesses over two wheels of missing cheese, in The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg turns his ship upside down over a quart of missing strawberries. On top of this, both Bligh and Queeg are highly untrusting of their crews, even going as far as to draw up conspiracy theories based on half-heard and innocent conversations. I have to ask if Herman Wouk took inspiration from Mutiny on the Bounty when writing his own novel.

Rounding out the crew of The Bounty is a fine cast of players. I’ve never thought much of Franchot Tone as an actor (or at the very least didn’t get many meaty roles) but he’s superb as Midshipman Roger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh with his final monologue being one of the movie’s many acting highlights. Other character actor highlights include the drunken Dudley Diggs, the easily frightened Herbert Mundin as well as Eddie Quillan and Donald Crisp, who have small but very memorable and striking parts.

The scenes on the island of Tahiti are a major contribution to the pure escapism in Mutiny on the Bounty. Filmed on location on the real-life island itself, this portion of the film is as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep; a seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced onboard The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic (even with the women’s navels being covered up with makeup) and it’s defiantly implied that intercourse has taken place. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want?

Mutiny on the Bounty also pushes forth a positive representation of the much-vilified British Empire with its patriotic overtones and the portrayal of the Empire having exceedingly good relations with a Polynesian tribe. Even with the appearance of a tyrannical and corrupt ship captain and his associates, the film indicates Bligh is an exception to the British Navy rather than the norm. Likewise, the film states in the opening prologue that the mutiny brought about reform to Britain’s navy:

“But this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline, based upon mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the sea.”

The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department especially considering the lack of back-projection shooting. Likewise, the rousing musical score by Herbert Stothart unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second (just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better). I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination and the yearning for adventure. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.