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 Wet Parade (1932)

Drink!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wet Parade is unusually long for a pre-code film at 2 hours resulting in a real mini-epic and an informative history lesson on the topic of the prohibition of alcohol in The United States by people who had just lived through it. Whereas most films on the topic focus on the criminal side of prohibition, The Wet Parade focuses on how it affected regular law abiding people.

The first act of The Wet Parade takes places in the American south and this portion of the film does meander a bit (also what is up with that cut made 19 minutes into the movie? – It couldn’t have been less jarring if they tried). None the less it’s worth patient wait for the shocking, pre-code melodramatics this act has to offer as Lewis Stone in the role of a southern gentleman succumbs to the bottle in the most over the top fashion. It’s not enough that he ends up victim to alcoholism; he has to be found dead in a literal pigsty. After the proceeding funeral his daughter Maggie (Dorothy Jordan) offers a beautiful, histrionic breakdown after seeing her father’s friends using whiskey have a toast to their departed friend (“And I only hope I live to see the day, that every bit that was ever made is poured into a cesspool where it belongs”). So yes, just blame the drink and not place any personal responsibility on her father’s lack of self-control. – More on this later.

The remainder of The Wet Parade takes place in New York City in which Maggie is introduced to the hotel owning Tarleton family and their son Kip (Robert Young). Walter Houston as the father of the family couldn’t ham it up more if he tried in the role of Pow Tarleton with his manly, Victorian demeanor. Pow is a hardcore Democrat and Woodrow Wilson fanboy as he drunkenly fawns over the commander in chief. Early in the film, he is seen giving a rousing political speech on the street which is contrast to a Republican elsewhere as it intercuts to both sides accusing the other of infringing on people’s liberates. –  Huston himself would go on to portray a fictional POTUS himself the following year in Gabriel Over the White House.

Films dealing with politics in Hollywood’s golden age rarely would mention actual political parties and by extension not identify characters as being associated with actual real-life parties (at most they would imply party connections). The Wet Parade is an exception to this as various characters are identified as being either Republican or Democrat. There is no clear political alliance The Wet Parade sides with yet it is an interesting observation that all the identified Democrats in the film are rowdy men’s men and heavy drinkers (“I never knew a Republican that could hold more than a pint”) while the two identified Republicans are pretty boys who don’t drink.

The Wet Parade provides an overview of the events which eventually leads to prohibition being enacted. This begins with the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and immediately after the results come in on election night, a group of Democrats sing a loud isolationism chant which dissolves into stock footage of marching troops to George M. Cohen’s ‘Over There’. – Nice one. With the US involved in the Great War we see the food control act introduced which Pow refers to as “the hick towns of the Bible belt are behind this, a snide blue-nosed trick to force the county into prohibition”. The Anti-Saloon League then begins pushing to get the Food Control Act into permanent, national law. This is followed by a scene in which we see the angry reaction from the soldiers in the trenches on whom it’s supposed to benefit, frustrated that they won’t be able to get a drink once they return home.

Following the introduction of prohibition, Pow’s wife catches him with a drink in the basement and grabs the bottle off him before smashing it on the floor. Pow strangles her then proceeds to beat her up, killing the poor woman in one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema. As a result, Kip and Maggie unite to crusade against the illegal alcohol trade, united by the damage and death alcohol has brought upon both their families. There is a historical analogy in this as long-time leader of the Anti-Saloon League Wayne Wheeler was himself was motivated by his disdain for alcohol due to a childhood incident in which an intoxicated hired hand accidentally stabbed Wheeler with a hayfork.

The Wet Parade showcases the negative effect alcohol can have on people’s lives but more importantly demonstrates how prohibition caused more problems than it solves, removing the tool rather than going to the root of the problem. As one of the gangsters in the film describes the illegal trade, “An industry bigger than the one they abolished”. The film even goes as far as acknowledging the government was behind the poisoning alcohol which made drinkers lose their sight. In one scene Kip and Maggie are given a good talking down by a friend (Neil Hamilton) in a line which best sums up the moral crusade which was prohibition; “People have been drinking for thousands of years, you can’t keep liquor away from people that want it. The minute you tell them they can’t have it more of them are going to stop drinking and get drunk instead.”

Rounding out the large cast of The Wet Parade is Myrna Loy during her bad girl phase. Her character is based on actress and speakeasy owner Texas Guinan and she even utters Guinan’s catchphrase “Give the little lady a big hand!”. The movie does not let down in its Loy factor and she has a satisfying amount of screen time even if it takes an hour until she first appears.

The Wet Parade is directed by Victor Fleming, most famous for directing The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind both in the same year. I think The Wet Parade may be the most interesting film he’s done outside of that. Outside of the film’s opening act in the American south, the remainder of the picture moves at a very brisk pace and features a large number of long takes. The Wet Parade is one of the most informative films on this period of American history and makes for a great double feature with the James Cagney prohibition spanning gangster picture The Roaring Twenties.

Treasure Island (1934)

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Me Timbers Remain Shivered

I’ve never read the book Treasure Island so I can’t compare this 1934 adaptation to the source material but rather give a point of view as someone who watched the film out of admiration for the stars involved. Treasure Island doesn’t have the unmanufactured feel or the neo-realism of the previous pairing of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper of The Champ (then again few films do) but I was satisfied to get my fill of another Beery-Cooper pairing. The chemistry they share, what a pure and natural delight.

For me Cooper’s performance in Treasure Island is priceless; a little kid trying to act tough. I can’t help but let out an “awwwww!!” at any moment when he’s in over his head. I can see how his performance would rub others the wrong way but I can’t get enough of it. Cooper’s relationship to Beery, in reality, was nothing like it was in fiction but watching him on screen you would never think otherwise. You can see the admiration Jim Hawkins has for Long John Silver on his face and likewise, when he discovers the truth about Long John, just look at the pure horror that bestows his face. Wallace Beery on other hand looks just like a true, rugged seafarer and a beast of a pirate. Being an actor of the silent era he has a beat-up face which says so much. Beery simply had the look this role required.

Treasure Island saw the return of the swashbuckler to Hollywood, popular during the 1920’s but almost nonexistent during the pre-code era. Coming from MGM, the production values are second to none, even throwing some exotic animals into the mix and a taster of what was to come in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before Beery appears on screen Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones steals any scene he occupies and when I say steals, I mean steals. I can’t determine whether or not his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his scenery-chewing grounceness, rambling and his constant desire for rum cracks me up (“Bottle of rum ya old hag!!”).

The ending is an emotional punch to the gut albeit one of mixed emotions. It’s not clear during the film whether or not Long John has any affection for Jim or is just manipulating him and taking advantage of his naivety. Regardless of watching Jackie Cooper crying his little heart out as Beery embarks of the ship, you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved.