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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A Free Soul (1931)

Rhett Vs Ashley

I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre-code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.

Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive, to say the least, and shows off a lot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.

Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise, there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as the scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.

I’m astounded at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst off the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lacklustre in my view. Regardless there is enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much-unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

olivia-and-errol-banner-3

The Taming of the Shrew

It’s Love I’m After draws many parallels to the earlier screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) with Leslie’s Howard’s Basil Underwood drawing a number of similarities John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. Basil Underwood is an egomaniacal actor who is as big a ham off stage as he is on. Like Barrymore in Twentieth Century, he can never describe something in a conventional matter but rather has to do it poetically with his constant references to Shakespeare, with Howard’s English accent making him sound all the more pretentious. He’s clearly a man of the theatre to the point that he doesn’t even know who Clark Gable is (yes they actually mention an MGM star in a Warner Bros movie when studios were keen to usually only promote their own contract players). Likewise, his sparing with Bette Davis as his bride to be Joyce Arden is similar to the screaming and shouting between John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, yet in a movie with Bette Davis Howard is still the bigger drama queen.

Although Basil is engaged to marry Joyce despite the two hating each other one minute and then are in a loving embrace the next, the real unforgettable dynamic is between Howard and Eric Blore. It’s implied throughout the film that Basil and the effeminate Diggs are gay lovers through much gay subtext (“Do we know anyone called Marsha West Diggs?”, “Not unless you’ve been cheating on me, sir”). This occurs even though Basil is set to marry Joyce, thus is Joyce even aware of this and are they involved in a three-way relationship or is Basil cheating on Joyce with Diggs? Why does Basil even need Joyce if he has the perfect partner in Diggs? Either way, the dynamic between the entire cast of It’s Love I’m After is effortless.

Olivia de Havilland’s Marcia West is an early example of what we would now call fanboyism, having a fanatical love for Basil Underwood. Yet despite her bursts of hyperactivity and her ditzy manner, she does have a smarter side to her. She does cleverly get her way into Underwood’s dressing room at the theatre and even has the common sense to just talk to him about her feelings towards him then run off again and not to continue bothering him. It’s only when Basil deliberately turns up to her house does he feel the full wrath of her fanaticism.

Also contributing to the movie’s over the top histrionics is Bonita Granvillie as the chatterbox Gracie. I actually find her character quite disturbing with her spying through keyholes on other people’s business only to then tell the rest of the family about her discoveries. She reminded me the little girl who from These Three and its remake The Children’s Hour who ruined people’s lives with deceitful spying and her big mouth. Thus it came as no surprise when I learned she was the actress who played the little girl in These Three!

The cinematography of It’s Love I’m After is also a thing beauty, a perfect showcase the distinctive Warner Bros aesthetic of the 30’s and 40’s; particularly the lighting the of the dark theatre at the beginning of the film and those spellbinding close-ups of Miss de Havilland. During the beginning of the film, Basil and Joyce are playing Romeo & Juliet on stage. Howard had played Romeo the year before in MGM’s production of Romeo & Juliet which along with Warner’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream in 1935, had failed to garner much interest from filmgoers. I get the impression It’s Love I’m After reflects this when Spring Byington falls asleep to the production of Romeo & Juliet only to be waken and utters “Isn’t it so wonderful, Shakespeare is so elevating”.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

This Is How The World Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Whimper

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life; fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier, a failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) on the other hand is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. No one in The Petrified Forest has much to look forward to; even the old man played by Charlie Grapewin gets very excited by the prospect of gangsters being nearby. Anything to create some excitement in the middle of the desert, excitement which doesn’t wain when he’s being held hostage by them. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The atmosphere in The Petrified Forest is intense enough that I can forgive the not so seamless transitions between real-life locations and the sets. With little to no use of non-diegetic music, the sound of a windstorm is more than enough to emphasize the prison of which the characters reside. I also highly recommend checking out Heat Lightning from 1934 which contains many similarities to The Petrified Forest in its setting and atmosphere as well as characters and plot points.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, a role in which he has never been more terrifying. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with, even with that distinct walk with his slouch and his arms bent in that manner as the dangle. – In most cases this would look ridiculous by Bogart makes it work. Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point with this likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood and no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard or Bogart) gave the better performance.

How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters whom are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism (also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers). Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.