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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The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Mob Doesn’t Think. It Has No Mind of Its Own. The great Spencer Tracy said in Fury!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I think to myself what are the most pessimistic films, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the first to come to mind. This is the type of film you never forget. Whenever I hear a story in the news related to mob mentality, I always think ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’! In the same way how any news story of political corruption or ineffectiveness makes me think Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The eerie music throughout the film sets the tone that something bad is going to happen.

This is the type of film that needs public exposure. It showcases how people can be pack animals who will rally behind something whether or not it’s true; demanding quick, speedy justice regardless of the consequences, with an ending which is a pessimistic punch to the gut, making you feel bad about humanity. The characters having no patience for the legal system and bend the law to fit their own agendas by allowing a deputy sheriff to deputise others. The result: three men are lynched on flimsily evidence that later turn out to be innocent. And if that wasn’t bad enough; the man they were accused of murdering is actually still alive. Remember just how easily false information can spread – do you hear that internet?

All the cast members of The Ox-Bow Incident have their moment in the sun, although it’s Dana Andrews is the one of who steals the show for me – just what you expect for a man threatened with lynching for a crime he is not proven to have committed. The hung bodies themselves don’t appear on screen as this would have been too graphic for the time. Only their shadows appear which is no less a powerful image.

Henry Fonda’s character is like the man in the painting in the saloon who is about to reach out for a woman – “In reach but can’t do anything about it”. Henry Fonda was not a producer on The Ox-Bow Incident but it’s likely had more of a role than just an actor. At the age of 14, Fonda’s father took him to witness the lynching of a young black man accused of rape – an event which had a profound impact on him, so it’s clear the material of The Ox-Bow Incident was of prime interest to him. Even in the film’s trailer he appears as himself talking about the book and film, and states “it’s not ethical for an actor to talk about a picture he’s in”. Yikes, times have changed!

Lynching was still prevalent in 1943 and the movie takes a jab at southerners with much of the posse being southern stereotypes. One of them even says at one point “Down in Texas where I come from we just get a man and string him up”, and even the unofficial leader of the posse Major Tetley wears a Confederate uniform.

The movie also packs a punch with its critique on machismo. The character of Major Tetley tries to make himself out to be more than he is while trying pathetically to be manly and tough. He tries to make a man out his effeminate and possibly gay adopted son (Tetley refers to him at one point as a “female boy”) by forcing him to be part of the lynching mob; needless to say things end in a tragic state. The son barely utters a word throughout the film until the end in which he gives a monologue to his father on what a depraved animal he is – such a release of anger. Likewise, Jane Darwell plays an annoying loud-mouthed old hag (ugh, that laugh) who is essentially one of the guys and believe you me: you just want to tape her mouth shut.

At only 75 minutes the film doesn’t screw around and gets straight to the point. The only disruption in the film’s pacing is a subplot regarding Henry Fonda’s character and his ex-girlfriend. I haven’t got any answers to how this is relevant to the rest of the plot. Westerns are not my favourite genre so to enjoy one they have to be incredibly well done or stand out of the crowd. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the western setting is merely a backdrop. The film has a low budget complete with obviously fake backdrops but it’s unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at the time. The film I found it held the most resemblance towards was Paths of Glory but preceding it by 14 years. The world wasn’t ready for The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 – but is it still ready?

All Through the Night (1941)

A Mixture of Action Und Comedy

Bogart: Let’s Get Silly!

Mixing up so many genres into a single movie could potentially be a disaster yet I’ve perhaps never seen a better genre mash-up than All Through the Night. I’m astounded at this movie’s ability to have a bit of everything and pull it off so immaculately; bouncing back and forth between drama, comedy, action, murder mystery and even film noir. All Through the Night is the closest thing to a Hitchcock movie starring Humphrey Bogart in which an ordinary man gets caught up in espionage and becomes a fugitive for a crime he didn’t commit, with moments in the film such as the auction scene or Bogart deliberately getting arrested by police directly reminded me of North by Northwest; likewise the movie even stars Judith Anderson in the Mrs. Danvers hairstyle from Rebecca while Bogart’s exploits against the movie’s Nazi villains gives an urban Indiana Jones edge to the film. Even the movie’s final climatic moment had me on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself “how is he going to get out of this?!”. One top of that the film gets an additional boast with some truly superb use of shadows and lighting; All Through the Night really exemplifies the unique look of Warner Bros. movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

I may sound hyperbolic but the more I think about it, the role of Gloves Donahue may be the greatest performance of Bogart’s career; why you ask, versatility! Just like the tone of the film he is able to continually bounce back between being serious to just downright silly. Bogart has made me laugh during comedic moments in his other movies but I never knew he could make me laugh this side splittingly hard; from subtle moments such as throwing the reserved sign off a table in a nightclub to the more obvious in which he infiltrates and stalls a secret Nazi meeting. At another point he delivers the line “More here than meets the FBI”; I do love me a corny pun but with Bogart delivering it just makes it funnier – All Through the Night makes me wish he had starred in more comedies.

On top of all that, the character he plays is a momma’s boy yet he’s still badass! I find this aspect of his character is hilarious in itself. There’s something adorable about a tough guy who wears dotted bathrobes and loves cheesecake so much; exemplified even more with his mother being played by the ever motherly Jane Darwell. All Through the Night features a large selection of character actors at some of their best work and even features a young Jackie Gleason in one of his earliest film roles; what more secrets does this movie hold? If I was to find any point of contention with All Through the Night I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit romance between Bogart and Kaaren Verne, but with a film that has this much merit, it’s hard to complain.

All Through the Night is an anti-Nazi propaganda film and an effective one at that. I find the satire here is on par with The Great Dictator and To Be or Not Be as the movie pokes fun at Nazi ideology. The leader of the branch of Nazi spies is portrayed by Conrad Veidt whom there was probably no one better at the time to play evil Nazis. Gloves Donahue is also a minor gangster which reflects the attitude of real-life gangsters of the time who worked with the government to infiltrate Nazi spies. One scene in the film involves Bogart giving a chilling monologue on how the Nazis will take people’s freedoms away in an argument against US isolationism in the ongoing war in Europe; all this however without even mentioning the word Nazi once throughout the film. Another interesting aspect of the film is the mentioning of an actual concentration camp Dachau. Being released in 1941 before the true nature of the camps where discovered, this is one moment I found quite chilling. All Through the Night was released in the US only 5 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, although Warner Bros. had already long established themselves as an anti-Nazi studio.

By the time I watched All Through the Night I had already seen all of Bogart’s major movies and figured I was largely finished exploring the actor’s filmography, thus it came as such a delight discovering this obscure gem which satisfied me more than many of his more famous movies. This is the type of movie which makes me want to scream out, “Why the hell is this not more well known?!”, but then again its moments like these in which I live to be a cinephile.