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.

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”.

Fours a Crowd (1938)

Release the Hounds!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Rosalind Russell in a screwball comedy? These are the kinds of cast ensembles which unleash the inner fanboy in me. Errol Flynn rarely got the chance in his career to perform comedy and here he proves he was cable of doing Cary Grant-esque comedy on the same level as well, Cary Grant. Sadly Four’s a Crowd’s lack of box office success prevented Warner Bros from putting him in more comedies

Although The Women is seen as the film which launched Rosalind Russell as a fast-talking comedic actress, Four’s a Crowd is the first film in which she plays such a character and her first turn as the working career woman (or “newspaper man” as she refers to herself here) which became synonymous with shades of Hildy Johnson coming through. She takes full advantage of the role, stealing the show with her impeccable timing which reportedly made Olivia de Havilland envious. De Havilland though is tasked with playing a dim-witted character which she performs without coming off as annoying as such characters can easily be.

Four’s a Crowd owes a certain debt to Libeled Lady featuring some similar plot trends and themes with its slam on the upper classes, the socialite lifestyle and the desperate lengths newspapers will go to in order to get a story and control the narrative. Even the opening title sequence is taken from Libeled Lady in which the cast do the same arm in arm walk but is full of moments of inspired zaniness to distinguish itself. The model train sequence which lasts for 16 minutes had to have come from creative minds; plus what’s funnier in an innocent, cute kind of way than grown men playing with model trains. However, there is one moment in Fours a Crowd which is one of the most bizarre gags I’ve ever seen in a film in which after escaping from a pack of guard dogs to the other side of a gate, he grabs one of the dog’s legs and bites it. I still don’t know how to react to it, whether I should laugh or be horrified or both! The plot gets very confusing very fast but in a good way culminating in a finale in which Errol gets the wrong girl at the end! Although the manner in which this happens is screwball antics at its finest.

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all. The beginning of both the Flynn-de Havilland partnership and the Flynn-Curtiz partnership, establishing Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a movie composer and ushering in a new era of swashbucklers. Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken more risks like this more often or was this just a freakishly lucky gamble?

Warner Bros where the best studio of the 1930’s when it came to making thrillers and action pictures in this their answer of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. The combination of Michael Curtiz’s direction, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pumping music scores, Errol Fylnn’s embodiment of a swashbuckling action hero and the dynamic he shared with Olivia de Havilland represents all the elements coming together at the right place and time to create something truly special. It’s no surprise that these elements would reunite many times over the next few years.

The scenes between Flynn and de Havilland are pure movie magic, when they’re together and alone it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own, it’s truly phenomenal. With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Flynn has ever been more attractive that he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never appeared this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. During production scenes had to be reshot as Fylnn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time; the man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for. The character of Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality, a free spirit who has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes. De Havilland, on the other hand, was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still alive. As of writing this review, there are only two years left until she reaches 100. I am counting down the days.

The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt authority and the seeming meaninglessness of war (“I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French”) giving the film that added intelligent edge but this doesn’t take away from the film’s aurora of just pure unmitigated fun.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Perfectly Perfected Perfection

I’ve long considered reviewing this movie before but it’s hard to do it justice. For my money, The Adventures of Robin Hood is just too dam perfect a film, every element fits together to an nth degree; I could put this movie under the microscope and not find a single thing I dislike about it. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines as the villains, the Technicolor, the sets, the action, the romance, the music, just the sear escapism of it all. It’s the type of film that fuels imaginations and makes you feel like a kid again. This all may sound hyperbolic but the more think about this movie the more I fall in love with it and have even gone as far as contemplating to label it as my favourite movie of all time, maybe not quite but I put it in my top 10. The Adventures of Robin Hood Is just so dam perfect that I am actually envious of it.

Just the first four names billed names in the cast list would make The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Who can play a more ridiculously charming lead hero than Errol Flynn? Who can play more loathsome villains than Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines? Rathbone being unabashedly evil while Raines surely most have helped popularise the trope of the effeminate villain. Likewise, the flawless beauty that is Olivia de Havilland as The Lady Marian isn’t just some useless damsel in distress but a central figure in the plot’s progression, acting as an insider after Robin has red pilled her.

Along with the masterful direction of Michael Curtiz, these talents coming together in the same picture is one in a million. It’s hard to talk about any Michael Curtiz directed film and not praise the film on a technical level. Let’s talk about that eye-watering Technicolor. Where the middle ages really this colourful? Every frame of this movie is oozing in beauty and with sets featuring such an astounding level of detail, those gorgeous matte paintings or the brightly coloured outfits (especially those worn by The Lady Marian); I just love staring at it and can never take my eyes off the screen. Really, The Adventures of Robin Hood is my choice as the most visually arresting movie ever. If you have contemporary film directors who resurrect the use of black & white cinematography, then why isn’t anyone resurrecting the use of Technicolor? There also isn’t a frame in the movie which doesn’t have an eye-pleasing composition with layers of props in the foreground and background.

Every action sequence is unbelievably exciting, with the film’s climactic sword fight being one of the most intense action sequences ever filmed. Also, that shadow effect is just so dam stylistic and cool; no one could implement shadows into the frame better than Curtiz (one of his visual trademarks as a director). Such scenes wouldn’t be as effective though without Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s highly melancholic and at other times adrenalizing score. I do rigorously listen to this soundtrack in it’s entirely on a regular basis; there is no other film score which evokes a greater sense of emotion from me.

On top of that, every time I watch Robin Hood it’s felt like a different experience every time, even as if I was watching the movie for the first time. I swear I’m not making this up but on every viewing, I’ve had with this movie has the weird, uncanny effect of having scenes I have no memory of seeing. Normally when I say I don’t remember a scene that would be a criticism but not in this case. That’s just the magic this movie possesses and the reason it is my number 1 choice of desert island movie.  If you have not viewed its perfection then what are you waiting for? That’s not a recommendation, that’s an order! There will never ever be a better Robin Hood movie…ever!