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.

Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)

The Sweet Life

Two Weeks In Another Town is the spiritual successor to the previous filmmaking based melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Vincente Minnelli.  The Bad and the Beautiful even gets an appearance within Two Weeks In Another Town in which Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) gloats over the film during a screening not quite unlike Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard  (“Loved it, thought I was great!”). Ultimately, I have to rank Two Weeks In Another Town as a more interesting and far more re-watchable film than The Bad and the Beautiful.

It’s always interesting to watch such lavish Hollywood productions from this period in the early to mid-1960s knowing that the Hollywood and filmmaking landscape would be almost unrecognizable by the end of the decade. TWIAT, for example, makes widespread use of the classic rear car projection shot which so identified with Hollywood’s golden age but not for much longer. The film offers a behind the scenes look at the on-set filmmaking process and even the post-production side of things with a whole scene alone focusing on dubbing the fictional film within the film. TWIAT was filmed in Cinecitta Studios in Rome (Hollywood on the Tiber as it was referred to due to the large number of American productions shot there) which doubles as the movie’s setting.

Aside from his musicals Vincente Minelli could craft a fine, lush and riveting melodrama and had a unique touch and style he brought to his films despite being a studio-bound director. TWIAT has just the right mixture glamour, decadent escapism, camp and a hint of trash along with the beautiful scoring courtesy of David Raskin. What is a melodrama if it doesn’t begin in a mental hospital or contain obvious use of symbolism such as Jack driving into a waterfall to signify his rebirth? Camerawork, on the other hand, is something which tends to stick out in Minelli’s films and the camerawork here is no less fluid as it follows actors from one room to another. There is one particularly memorable shot in which Jack walks into the elevator and the camera somewhat metamorphosises into becoming his point of view.

Hollywood’s veteran directors would have been as old as Edward G. Robinson by 1962 in the role of Maurice Kruger. In 1962 Robinson had his two best roles in years, both in films about the industry itself. TWIAT was the third pairing of Robinson and Claire Trevor and their role as a married couple is tragic as it is evident there is still some resemblance of love between this frustrated filmmaker and his hysterical old hag of a wife. It’s almost comical in her introductory scene, as riveting as Trevor’s performance is as she screams and follows her husband around their hotel suite accusing him of adultery as he walks around paying zero attention to her – he’s just that used to it. Adding to the cast is also Cyd Charisse who gives an entertaining if albeit shallow performance as Jack’s gold-digging ex-wife. She isn’t given much to do in the film other than being a man-eater but it’s fun to watch none the less.

TWIAT also acts as a good travelogue for Rome at night and offers a look at the city’s nightlife with one of my favourite shots in the movie being Kirk Douglas and Daliah Lavi overlooking the city at twilight as the sky is blood red; absolutely gorgeous. Also, Italians seem to know what to wear as every bit player and extra on screen is dressed so dam well.

Night Nurse (1931)

I’m Nick…the Chauffeur!

It doesn’t take long into Night Nurse to see the film isn’t a very positive portrayal of the health care service circa depression-era United States. Dr. Kildare this is not and even makes 1934’s Men In White come off as a more an idealised vision of the health care system in the 1930’s; Night Nurse is anything but. All within the picture’s first ten minutes Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is turned down for the job as a nurse but then gets it after catching the fancy from another doctor. Likewise one of the interns is a pervert and fellow nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell) recommends tricking patients into thinking you’ve saved their life in order to get money out of them. Blondell’s character, in particular, I really found myself loathing from an actress who normally played such likable characters. She clearly dislikes her profession and even recites the Florence Nightingale pledge while chewing gum – Night Nurse is a movie with a wide range of despicable human beings on display. There is even a scene which appears to show an actual baby in distress and another in which children talk about in graphic terms of the mental and physical abuse they and their dead sister have received – not very comfortable viewing.

Director William Wellman was one of the most interesting filmmakers during the pre-code era, whose film’s go against the conception of movies from the early 1930s being static and lacking camera movement or fluidity. Night Nurse is a perfect example of the kind of pictures Warner Bros produced during the 1930’s; a thought-provoking socially conscious melodrama. Whether or not it’s exaggerated, the plot of hospital corruption and the ineffectiveness of both the hospital and the authorities to prevent child abuse, the movie does succeed in packing a punch. What does it say when the intervention of gangsters, people working outside the law are required to save the lives of two children? Warner Bros was also known for featuring ethnic casts in their movies. At the beginning of the movie a shot focuses on a group of Chinese people sitting around a hospital bed speaking in their native language, helping to set the film’s gritty mood. There is also an emphasises later in the film that the shop which is broken into in order to steal milk for a bath in order to save the lives of malnourished children is from a Kosher delicatessen. Is there a particular reason for this? This was 1931 but history has made of this scene of the delicatessen windows being smashed unintentional creepy.

The other major reason to watch Night Nurse is to see Clark Gable in the pre-stardom role of Nick the Chauffeur in his glorious 5 minutes and 25 seconds (approx) of screen time (yes, I timed it). The film builds up to his reveal with the name of this unscrupulous “Nick” being thrown around. His character’s introduction with the use of a camera zoom and the uttering of “I’m Nick…the chauffeur” gives me chills in one of the most memorable moments in pre-code cinema. Gable is scary enough as a dominating brute who wants to murder children and isn’t afraid to punch women or the elderly but this is multiplied by the fact that he’s dressed like a Nazi. Ok not really, it’s a chauffeur’s uniform but when I first saw him wearing this, my instant reaction was “Why is he dressed like an SS officer?” (likewise, just as equally striking is his costume choice of a black kimono). The role of Nick is an odd duckling in the career of Gable which shown he had the knack for playing terrifying villains – such unrealised potential. As much as the man’s appearance in the background is enough to make you go, “oh s—t!”, and in a big way sister.

Men In White (1934)

Medical Melodrama

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Initially I was skeptical at weather Clark Gable would make a convincing doctor but not only does he pull it off (even if he is the most gorgeous doctor ever *swoons) Men In White has to be my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver portraying the idealistic and dignified young Dr. George Ferguson; 60 years before George Clooney in ER. Men In White is a perfect showcase of what Gable is cable off while Myrna Loy, although not dominating the film as much still shares a mature romance with Gable who must make difficult decisions between his profession and his love life. Rest assured I got the satisfactory amount of swooning I would expect from a pairing of these two.

I cannot stress enough just how astounding this movie looks. This is without a doubt most stunning black and white film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Every scene is light so immaculately with multi-layered and angled shots plus the widespread use of shadows giving the film shades of noir. Even the classic noir shot of the shadows created by blind shutters on one’s face to show they have become imprisoned in life is present. Likewise, the art deco design of the hospital itself would likely not be practical in real life but it sure as hell looks good; needless to say the removal of eyes from the screen is easier said than done. The film’s set designer was Cedric Gibbons, a regular at MGM who helped create the distinctive look of their films in the 1930’s and surely Men In White is one of his greatest achievements.

Movies like this where common in the 1930’s, glorifying those who held jobs central to society (Tiger Shark, Night Flight, Slim). Call them propaganda but they were effective and informative. Although I don’t have any real interest in medicine or healthcare (despite both my parents being nurses) Men In White gives a real sense of awe and wonder to medical world such as when Dr. McCabe (Henry B. Walthall) the elder doctor who gives a rousing speech at the beginning of the film on all the medical advances in his lifetime (anesthesia, sterilization, surgery, x-ray) and the figures behind them. We’ve come much further since 1934, certainly when it comes to the etiquette of the doctors on display. In one scene a doctor hits on a nurse in the open for everyone else to hear while other doctors have no problem openly talking about their sex lives (“Being in love kills your sex life”). There is even one scene in which a doctor is running through the public area of the hospital wearing only a towel! If that happened today it would be all over the tabloids.

Men In White paints a picture of just how demanding a job as a doctor is, working round the clock; Dr. Ferguson works 16-18 hours a day for $20 a week (in 1934 or course). His finance Laura (Myrna Loy) has a selfish streak to her, getting frustrated with Ferguson when he’s only doing his job and one which is detrimental to saving the lives of others. Additionally Jean Hersholt (Hollywood’s great Dane and an actor who has that look of great intellect) as Ferguson’s mentor pressure’s George to put greater priority to his career than his love life. The film’s ending isn’t so predictable having me question whether or not George and Laura will end up together in the end.

Men In White also showcases corruption which can exist within hospitals when a superior doctor knowingly gives a child too much insulin, only for Dr. Ferguson to interfere even if it puts his job on the line. Once the child recovers from the insulin overdose, the superior doctor takes the credit; douche. The child, however, thanks and hugs Dr. Ferguson at the end of the film in what I feel is the movie’s most inspiring moment. Gable isn’t playing a brute here like he often does but rather someone who can project a level of warmth especially with his interaction with his child patient.

The scene in which Dr. Ferguson and the English nurse Barbara Den (Elizabeth Allen) are bonding over their loneliness and then start kissing is a breathtaking sequence. This leads to the most daring aspect of Men In White is the inclusion of abortion in the film’s plot. When I first watched the film I didn’t catch on that the big surgery scene itself was the result of a failed back alley abortion as the film’s hints are very subtle; it’s all in the undertones of the movie. That’s one reason why Men In White is re-watching; distinguishing what’s being said and shown versus what is really going on. If anything this is much more fun and satisfying having the movie simply spell everything out to the viewer.

When it is discovered Nurse Den attempted to get an abortion it is simply alluded to that she has a condition worse than a ruptured appendix and before the surgery itself Dr. Ferguson is questioned, “who is the man?”. It’s not made clear if the child being terminated is the result of the affair between Ferguson and Den, however, before their fling she is seen feeling unwell. Although I can’t comment of how accurate a depiction Men In White is of the medical profession I was still amazed at the level of detail in the movie from the terminology to the wide range of instruments used. One particular moment which stood out to me was the rigorously high level of sanitization the staff must go through prior to surgery. The film has an economic length of only 73 minutes but packs so much content. I’d happily become ill just to go to this hospital.

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.

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.