Director: Lewis Mileston
All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a quote from author Erich Maria Remarque “This [film] is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Two of the first three Best Picture Academy Award winners are films about war. However, whereas Wings portrayed the conscription of young men as a proud, noble, patriotic service benefiting the greater good, All Quiet on the Western Front paints a much dimmer picture of the harsh realities and futility of warfare.
The story is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school join the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their high school teacher. But after experiencing a brutal boot camp and the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends have realized that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés. They no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror.
The film has a stark and cold feel to its imagery. I am unaware whether this is by the design of Director Lewis Mileston or simply a reflection of the then current cinematic technology; regardless, it is highly effective in portraying Remarque’s message.
The present day relevance of the film’s anti-war message is remarkable. Although the term post traumatic stress syndrome was unknown at the time, many characters appear to display its symptoms. Paul sees his friends die one after another often suffering slow lingering deaths both from wounds inflicted on the battlefield, as well as from gangrene caused by amputations at understaffed and overworked field hospitals. Paul, when home on leave, cannot discuss the carnage, brutality and senselessness of his battlefield experiences with anyone. He even feels compelled to cut his leave short to return to his comrades as they are the only people he can now relate to.
Remarque also challenges the notion that one should blindly accept the authority and wisdom of those in power whether it is parents, teachers, business leaders or higher ranking soldiers simply because of their position – a rather radical concept even in today’s society.
Examples include teachers instructing students to drop out of school to fight in a war because it is their duty and the “right” thing to do. Young men are instructed to listen to their fathers, not their mothers, because no mother would want her son to go to war. One scene shows Paul being asked by a group of successful businessman debating over a map ofEuropeabout the best avenue to attack the enemy. Paul realizes these men have no conception about warfare, the capabilities and condition of the troops, or the better equipped, superior enemy force, and therefore elects not to respond.
I particularly liked the dialogue where one soldier suggests that national leaders should go to a roped off field in their underwear bearing clubs and the country’s leaders that emerge victorious win the war. Seems like a sensible solution to me!
On a different note, Elliot and I have discovered that every movie we are planning to view is available through our local Carnegie Library system. Please support your local library.
The Lewis Mileston classic, All Quiet on the Western Front , is really the first one of the films that we have seen thus far that I would dub a classic of American cinema. From the stunning long shots to the lengthy action scenes, the movie shows the stunning leap in the technology of sound films from its unpolished predecessor, The Broadway Melody. This 1930 classic is also the first film to embody the melancholy of America after 1929’s Stock Market Crash. Rather than focusing on a particular main character, the film is also the first ensemble piece to win the award. Delving into the psychological conditions of soldiers in the trenches in WWI, the futility of world war, as well as the conditions on the home front, the film really provides a snap shot of German culture as it comes to terms with the repercussions of being involved in such an all encompassing war. It is particularly fascinating to me that the film is made from a German perspective instead of an American one. While this more closely mirrors the German book of the same name that provided its source material, it was also released only 12 years after a war that had decimated America. In my personal opinion, this was a method of commenting on the state of the Depression-era America without having to deal with the political connotations of directly tackling the social problems that existed in America at this time. The scenes of Germany when a soldier returns to the homeland on leave especially resemble a depression-era America. The soldier had to bring home food from the front to feed his starving family, since the majority of the country’s food was being shipped to the front to feed soldiers.
One of my favorite shots in the film is a long shot through a window looking out at a shell attack occurring as the new recruits arrive to the front. This window symbolizes the divide of a country watching the war from afar compared to having the war fought on home soil likeAmerica’s allies and enemies experienced. The film also had a glaring anti-war message that was truly indicative of a world struggling to recover from the overall economic and emotional devastation that the war inflicted. There were moments when the soldiers were sitting by a lake chatting about the very reason they were fighting and not many could really answer the reason why, or whether they should have any animosity towards French and British soldiers that they had never met before. One of the most emotionally moving moments in the film came after a German had just stabbed a French man as they both hid from incoming shells in the same bunker. The German confesses that he had nothing against the man, and they were both just humans obeying orders from their respective governments. After the French man dies in the trench, the German looks through his things and discovers a picture of the French man’s wife and son which strikes an emotional chord with him. As he sits in the trench with the corpse of the man he just killed, it was hard for him to differentiate the man’s humanity from the previously perceived enemy that he had stabbed just 12 hours before.
Overall, the film was spectacular for the era in which it was created. Even compared to the very enjoyable, Wings, produced only two years earlier, All Quiet on the Western Front far surpasses its two predecessors in technology, cinematography, storyline, acting and every aspect of filmmaking. For this film to be made at this time in history is a truly remarkable feat and places it easily within the category of the classic American film lexicon.
Director: Wesley Ruggles (Uncredited)
I am a big fan of the Western film genre, thus I was anxiously anticipating this film which I assumed was a Western. Although the film has elements of a Western, it would be inappropriate to consider Cimarron a pure Western. The film is an epic that begins with a classic scene recreating the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and ends in the then modern day 1930. The Motion Picture Academy has always seemed to favor large scale epics and spectacles, and this Academy Award winner is no different. The most famous scene in the movie is one depicting the Oklahoma Land Rush, which involves a cast of hundreds racing across the dusty plains. The story, written by Edna Ferber, traces a family’s travails and evolution over a 40 year period. The changes in the family mirror the changes inOklahoma from an untamed territory, to entering statehood and finally becoming an industrialized oil behemoth.
Although I realize this is a fictionalized tale, the story of the Cravat family seemed a bit far-fetched. The father would leave for years only to reappear and have the family react like he had just returned from a day at the office. Possibly the novel explained these absences in greater detail then permitted in a 123 minute movie, but to me, the film story was lacking. The story of the Oklahomaterritory was interesting and felt like a reasonable portrayal of historical events albeit with expected cinematic hyperbole. The movie did discuss prejudice and persecution of American Indians which I’m sure was eye-opening to many filmgoers. However, the movie was also full of stereotypes regarding blacks, Jews, Indians, gold-diggers and prostitutes which I found amusing, but at the same time somewhat disturbing as these portrayals may have reflected widely held beliefs of this era. This is our second movie with a stutterer; obviously a common character role at one time which today would probably fall into the politically incorrect category – The King’s Speech an obvious exception.
From the perspective of film technology, Cimarron does not represent any advancement from previous Academy Award winners and the choppiness of scene changes may have been a step backwards – possibly this is why the director opted to go uncredited. Although I’m a big fan of Westerns, I will have to wait until 1990’s Dances with Wolves before I see my next Western Oscar winner.
Cimarron is a western of epic proportions that portrays the time period of the Oklahoma land rush. When I first sat down to watch this film, I really had no conception as to its subject matter other than its Western genre. However, Cimarron defies the classic classification of the Western genre because of its focus on the more political and social context of this new frontier. Oklahoma is depicted as the last hurrah of the Wild West, as the land which had been previously been allotted for Native Americans is opened up to settlers from across the country. The movie begins in a frantic dash of thousands of hopeful settlers, equipped with a myriad of different kinds of wagons and horse-drawn transportation, all hoping to gain a choice claim of the million acres of newly-opened land.
Within the first five minutes of the movie, it is immediately made known that this film was made in the 1930’s through the characters’ attitudes towards race. The main characters Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and Sabra Cravat (Irene Dunne) are sitting at a table with Sabra’s parents, and Sabra’s father asks an unseen entity for more air. The camera then tilts up to reveal Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), the family’s African American servant suspended from the ceiling fanning the family with a palm leaf. I was personally shocked at such an image being portrayed on film, especially so nonchalantly. Yancey’s father-in-law next goes on a rant against Native Americans and how they are a dirty people. While Yancey is a Native American rights activist as shown through his editorials in the paper, the blatant racism is hard to ignore.
The movie actually spans over 40 years, which is fascinating mechanism to allow us to watch the characters develop over such a large segment of their lives. However, spanning this stretch of time sacrifices significant character development and leaves the audience to try and connect the loosely connected dots. Yancey, the main male protagonist describes at the beginning of the movie that he can only stay in one place for a maximum of five years. This curious trope impacts the plot throughout the duration of the film, and the gaps in action are bridged by Yancy returning after 5 year stints of abandoning his family. While it could be said that he was supposed to embody the rambling and restless spirit of the west, to me his abandonment shows a certain emotional immaturity and resistance to commitment.
The initial sojourn to Osage, the boom-town in Oklahoma where the majority of the action takes place, is the most exciting of the slices of life depicted in the film. Yancy arrives as the town is struggling to find a moral compass and suppress the outlaw population from ruling the town. Yancy, through his career as a writer and a lawyer had become acquainted with many of the new residents of Osage, and quickly become a folk hero. Keeping the town safe through both his quick draw with his colt pistol and his quick wit in his newly establish Osage Wigwam, Yancy becomes a predominant member of Osage society. However, after his five years is up, Yancy leaves his wife and children in Osage and heads further West.
Yancy’s wife Sabra is left to run the paper, which while at some points shows her exhibiting agency as the empowered female editor of a newspaper, however she reveals that she left Yancy’s byline as editor and proprietor of the paper even in his absence. Sabra is the real unsung hero of the film, even becoming a congresswoman by the end of the story. However, the film really cut down the main heroine’s importance, instead focusing on the male’s impact to the town as compared to his wife’s contributions (which were far greater). Overall, this movie was an outdated but enjoyable look at the history of Oklahoma’s founding, however it does not translate into our modern society. Despite this failing, I still would recommend it to any fan of Westerns who is looking to see another take on this classically defined genre and also willing to keep an open mind to the early date of the film’s production.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Grand Hotel is an unusual quirky film. It features a blockbuster cast of stars including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, and Lionel Barrymore and was billed as “the greatest cast in stage or screen history!” The story follows the lives of assorted characters during a brief stay at the Grand Hotel, a luxuriousBerlin hotel. Obviously, with a story involving so many characters, the individual backgrounds of the hotel guests cannot be explored in depth and, in fact, remain a mystery for the viewer to draw one’s own conclusions. Perhaps what brought the characters to this place is not as important as what their current circumstance appears to be and how each character deals with adversity. To me, the movie expresses certain truisms – one, good people faced with grim financial prospects will often be drawn to do bad things (such as theft or adultery); two, wealthy people faced with the potential loss of wealth will often do bad things (such as lying and murder); three, wealthy and successful people can still suffer from depression despite material comforts; and four, people facing imminent death can enjoy their remaining days because they are freed from the burdens of responsibility and conformity. I can’t help but feel the screenwriter was sending a message to all of those affected by the Great Depression that was still devastating the American filmgoer. I do not know whether the message that wealth does not lead to happiness could make a depression-era filmgoer feel better, but that’s the impression the writer appears to convey. If all this sounds confusing, it is because it is. Unless the viewer pays close attention to the dialogue, the interwoven vignettes would become increasingly difficult to follow. There were some interesting plot twists but I did not feel an emotional connection with any of the characters.
I did enjoy seeing 1930’s glamour and the hotel switchboard scenes were a great reminder of a bygone era. The director presents scenes of the luxurious hotel with dramatic angles and interesting lighting effects particularly the shots from the top floor overlooking the open lobby below.
Grand Hotel was the most eccentric film we have viewed so far in our quest to view all of the Best Picture winners. While the acting was a bit dated, the Grand Hotel touched upon certain societal themes that still ring true today. Especially in the dialogue between the haves and the have-nots, the depression-era socioeconomic divide clearly influenced the film’s moral compass. This film was another example of an ensemble piece that relies on a diverse character-base to provide a snapshot of life in a specific setting. Each character has a unique function, and represents a role from a different class or profession. Interestingly enough, this was actually the second film that we have viewed thus far to take place in Germany, a setting that will become infinitely less popular after the beginning of the United States involvement in WWII starting in 1941. While it is hard to compare the technical aspects of Grand Hotel to the more grandiose productions of Cimarron and All Quiet on the Western Front, the scene transitions were smoother than its predecessors and appeared to be a more finished final product. Grand Hotel also contained bona fide Hollywood stars, an aspect the previous films did not capitalize on. Greta Garbo plays Grusinskaya the beautiful and troubled dancer. John Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s grandfather) plays The Baron Felix von Gaigern, a cat burglar and imposter. As well as a supporting role played by Joan Crawford as a stenographer, to help fill out the rest of the talented ensemble cast. My favorite member of the ensemble cast was the mysterious doctor (Lewis Stone) who would appear in different scenes and provide commentary about the characters in the Hotel. He delivers the famous tagline “Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” This serves as the complete antonym of the reality of the situation, but draws the audience in with the force of the narrator of The Twilight Zone.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and found it a nice mix of drama, quirk, and comedy. It was the first real glimpse we have had in our journey of the golden age ofHollywood. I left the finish of the film with great optimism both for what clearly had shown me the refinement I was looking for in these films as well as the fantastic movies we shall see in the future.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Although I have not seen every best picture Oscar winner, I must honestly say that Cavalcade is the only winner whose title was unfamiliar to me. Interestingly, it is also the only film not available through the Carnegie Library system in DVD format; fortunately my VHS player is still viable. Unlike Grand Hotel with its “cavalcade” of Hollywood stars, Cavalcade does not have a single actor that I would consider famous. I do not want to imply that the quality of the acting is lacking because I did enjoy most of the performances. Based on a play written by Noel Coward, the dialogue clearly borders on the melodramatic.
This is our third film out of six where war plays a prominent role. Given that the film was produced in 1933 and that a vast majority of filmgoers would have experienced war’s trials and tribulations, I’m sure the subject matter had broad appeal. This film begins with the Boer War in 1899, progresses though World War I, and offers hope that another war may be averted (which we now know wasn’t to be). Along this journey tracing the lives of two British families of differing financial means, we experience the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, the extravagance of roaring 20’s, and the rise of philosophies encompassing socialism, communism, Sigmund Freud, and religious and anti-religious thought. A particularly well done scene in the film shows a couple on their honeymoon cruise discussing life, their future and musing what if tonight would be their last. As they retire to their quarters, the shocking image of a lifesaver with the inscription Titanic is visible in the frame.
Similar in feel to All Quiet on the Western Front, the film does not glorify war. The film however does evoke emotions in its contemplation of the meaning of life, the importance of living for the “now”, and the unpredictable nature of life’s journey. This film could not be considered a feel good movie as the brightness of the future is definitely in question. In fact, the beginning of the twentieth century seems to be a tumultuous time compared to the perception of the tranquility of the 1800’s. A comparison similar to today’s reminiscing of the quieter, gentler time of the 1950’s (at least as portrayed in television sitcoms).
Technically, I thought the sound was among the best we’ve heard thus far, particularly the emphasis on quality sound effects from artillery explosion to train station whistles. Not to mention the clarity of the sound of horse hoofs on cobblestone in a funeral procession. The aging of the characters was better than we saw in Cimarron and very believable. Musical numbers effectively change in style as we progress through different eras. Cavalcade will not be one of my favorite Oscar winners but was unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable (even in VHS).
The film, Cavalcade, shows a longitudinal history of two families in late 19th century to early 20th century England. In the course of this study, it is hard not to make comparison to the predecessors of this film that have also won the award for best picture. Cavalcade has unmistakable similarities to Cimarron in its method of depicting a family’s evolution through significant historical events. The tagline of the film, “Cavalcade – Picture of the Generation” creates an accurate portrayal of the events that had significantly influenced the lives of the upper-class London residents Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert Marryot (Clive Brook). Interestingly enough, Cavalcade was the first award to be won by an English production in comparison its American peer productions. The first event mentioned in the film, The Second Boer War, was a part of English history that I was not too familiar with. It was particularly interesting to see the juxtaposition of the Marryot children playing soldiers, as well as the ennui of the women on the home front, instead of portraying the violence of the war. Also, the scene transition from the cheerful men singing with interlocked arms as their families bid them farewell, to the main heroine checking the casualty list was particularly jarring.
Throughout the film they continue to utilize the motif of a cavalcade, defined as a procession or parade on horseback that often depicts historical events and follows a long trail. The film’s title fits that description perfectly, as 30 years of British history is depicted through the lens of the family. The film also superimposes the imagery of a processional of horses over scenes of action to symbolize the fact that time is progressing. While this film does occur during two wars, both The Second Boer War as well as WWI, it shows a side of war that previous films have not depicted as much, the home front. The hardship of the Marryot family is also portrayed through pivotal moments of the 1910’s including a certain family member’s trip on an ill-fated cruise in 1912 aboard the “unsinkable” Titanic. Through the eyes of the family, we are able to gather an accurate portrayal of the hardships and pains of the English public during this era. While looking at this posterity it is also hard to forget the fact that at the time when this film was created,England had yet to experience its most trying test in the form of WWII which occurred just 6 years after the film was made.
One of the most interesting parts of the film was the montage sequence that portrayed the vice and the hedonism of the 1920’s. The sequence depicted Jazz-era flappers, a homosexual couple, the rise in atheism, and a complete reversal from the Victorian society portrayed in the first portion of the movie. These choices were particularly daring, and many of the depictions would not have been possible in Production Code eraHollywood, which would begin to censor films in 1934. The portrayal of homosexuality would never have passed censorship restrictions that would limit content for the next 25 or so years.
Overall, I found the film emotionally moving and a better representation of a longitudinal character study than the more fragmented Cimarron. It’s more innovative technological advances on such a large scale also showed the biggest improvement in film production since All Quiet on the Western Front. The lesson in English history also familiarized me with a segment of world history that I was not well acquainted with, and I was glad I had the chance to learn about it through an insider’s perspective provided by an English film production.
Director: Frank Capra
I love It Happened One Night. Of the films we have seen, this is the first film that I have seen on numerous occasions (although this is the first time on a large screen HD television). In fact, I never previous appreciated the beautiful cinematography. The elegant black and white scenes reminded me of Ansel Adams photographs. There are scenes of moonlight and daylight, urban city and rural county, people at parties and people on buses, and lots of rain. I also never realized how attractive Claudette Colbert was. Especially with the moonlight streaming onto her face through a cabin window as she laid thinking of Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on the other side of the blanket separating their beds.
The story has been retold in various guises through films of every decade. The spoiled rich girl, Ellie Andrews, escapes from her millionaire father (Walter Connolly) who wants to stop her from marrying a worthless playboy, only to be befriended by out-of-work newspaper man, Peter Warne. Naturally, their initial icy relationship blossoms into love as they travel together toNew York. The movie is often considered the first screwball romantic comedy to win the Oscar for best picture.
The story and the acting are first-rate. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the “big five” Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). The story is warm and engaging. The characters are wonderfully detailed and developed. Even the minor characters are memorable from the fast taking bus rider, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), to Ellie’s father, to the cottage owners, to the thieving highway man. Although the film is a comedy, it is still a depression era movie that does an excellent job of depicting multiple facets of American life in the 1930’s: both from the perspective of the wealthy, King Westley arriving to his wedding in an autogyro, to those who must chose between spending money on a bus ticket versus eating a meal.
It Happened One Night is a delightful timeless film that all lovers of romantic comedies should include on their must-see list.
I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to say that It Happened One Night is my favorite Oscar Winner that we’ve seen thus far. First, let me start with two words that sum up my feelings about the film: Clark Gable. Directed by the very talented Frank Capra, of It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame among countless other classics, It Happened One Night is the first glimpse we have had of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is hard to do anything but gush in response to this film, but I will try to maintain some sense of decorum in this commentary. From the classic backlighting, to the acting, to the production value, to the story, there is something timeless about this film that we haven’t really witnessed thus far in our journey through the best picture winners. Even the sound quality and sound mixing make this picture a standout in comparison to its more dated predecessors.
An aspect of films like It Happened One Night that one has to take into account, is the fact that what may seem cliché to us now was still an original plot motif when the film was made. The beautiful Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl, who runs away from her overbearing father to taste freedom for the first time. While originally Ellen Andrews (Colbert) flees her father to join her new husband, it quickly becomes apparent that she did not marry “King” Westley for love. However, Ms. Andrews faces many trials and tribulations as the sheltered debutante attempts to take to the lengthy voyage fromMiami toNew York. Luckily for both Andrews and viewers alike, the suave newspaper man Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is there to serve as Sherpa for her life-changing journey. Convinced that the overnight bus fromMiami toNew York won’t leave without her, Ellen takes her time during a brief break only to discover no bus. Suddenly she is met with the stunning realization that the world doesn’t revolve around her. Peter Warne however, noticed that she had left her ticket on the bus and was waiting to greet the shocked Ellen Andrews.
Through their tumultuous journey together that includes their luggage being stolen, private investigators searching for the missing heiress, being broke and hungry, forging streams, sleeping in hay bales, stealing cars, as well as a myriad of other instances of lovable shenanigans, they discovered that they could quite possibly be in love with each other. My favorite scene in the film is one in which Clark Gable shows Colbert how to hitchhike. He goes on a long spiel illustrating the three different kinds of gesticulations he uses to hail passing cars, and then attempts to demonstrate them. As he furiously goes through the three options, he fails to elicit a single response from the passing stream of automobiles. Colbert then steps up to the plate, and asks for a try. Gable relents to prove to her how difficult the task actually can be. Colbert then hikes up her dress revealing an amount of leg that was the 1930’s equivalent of a Janet Jackson super bowl performance, and immediately gets them a ride.
While I could write 5000 words on why I love this movie, I think it would be best for me to just endorse that anybody who enjoys classic films, romantic comedies, or just film in general should really see the film It Happened One Night. *Spoiler Alert* Runaway Bride totally copied its premise from a scene at the end of this film, and I would take Claudette Colbert over Julia Roberts any day.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Mutiny on the Bounty is a historical tale of one of the most infamous mutinies in naval history. It portrays life in the British navy at a time when men could be conscripted into service against their wishes. Had first officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) been in charge, the voyage to Tahiti to obtain a cargo of breadfruit plants may have been uneventful; however, under the command of the tyrannical Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), morale quickly erodes. Idealistic midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is on his maiden voyage and is torn between his friendship with Mr. Christian and his duty to follow his Captain’s orders even though he often finds them cruel and despicable.
An interesting side note to this film is the fact that all three actors were nominated for Best Actor (though none won). The Academy introduced the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories the next year to prevent such a reoccurrence. I thought the acting was good but not superb. Having just seen Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, it was a little difficult envisioning him as an 18th century naval officer after his excellent portrayal of the 20th century newspaper reporter. Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh seemed a bit over exaggerated but one clearly despises the character as the film progresses.
Technically, we continue to see improvement film production. The scenes of the HMS Bounty sailing through stormy seas are impressive and felt very realistic. The location scenes on Tahiti inFrench Polynesiapresent our first venture to a far off land for filming and provide a wonderful picture of the island and its people (even if some of the actors are clearly not natives). In fact, at a cost of almost $2 million, the film was MGM’s most expensive production at the time.
Although I had seen this film previously, I still enjoyed revisiting the seafaring adventure.
Mutiny on the Bounty showed a completely different side of filmmaking compared to the previous year’s It Happened One Night. As a viewer, it is hard not to acknowledge that I felt like Hollywood back-pedaled between these two films. I understand that this film was made in 1935 and Hollywood provided escapism for an America still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. However, I notice that a production is dated significantly more when the scale of the film is larger. The film was also our second film to be directed by Frank Lloyd, the first of which being the equally large scale production of Cavalcade. Lloyd often prefers shots from long distances that illustrate the scope of a scene, which while impressive and necessary for his subject matter, do not present the same polished nature of the closer shots exhibited by films like It Happened One Night. Clark Gable’s performance in this film did earn him a second Oscar nomination for best actor, but unlike It Happened One Night, he was not honored for his performance.
Based on the novel by the same name, Mutiny on the Bounty depicts the breaking point of Fletcher Christian (Gable) and the rest of the HMS Bounty sailors who are overly disciplined by the heartless Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton). Captain Bligh is presented as a man who derives sadistic pleasure from watching his crew be disciplined, and views any objection to his cruel means of punishment as insubordination. The film introduces Captain Bligh in a scene where an offender, guilty of striking an officer, is set to be punished in front of the crew. Already having received a lashing, as indicated by his shredded back, the offender is pronounced dead before the punishment has even begun. Rather than accept that the deceased has received enough punishment, Captain Bligh insists that the additional two dozen lashes required by naval law be administered to the dead body. This extreme example of corporal punishment sets the precedent for the impending two year long journey that the crew is about to embark on.
The first half of the trip is comprised of the rising tensions between Captain and Crew that were only temporarily alleviated by shore leave in Tahiti. By this point, the Captain’s strict and excessive punishments had claimed the lives of a couple of crew members; he also starved the ship while maintaining his own particularly gluttonous diet. The series of increasingly brutal regiments of discipline, which included depriving some members of the crew of shore leave, caused an incensed Fletcher Christian to rally the lay people on the ship to mutiny against the Captain in order to survive the his heartless disciplining. After the mutiny, Fletcher Christian sets adrift the Captain and his supporters with limited rations and a compass to fend for themselves in the mighty ocean. The rest of the film can be summed up in three movements: 1). Fletcher Christian and the crew aboard the Bounty live in Tahiti for a year and then leave to start a settlement on an uncharted Island. 2). Captain Bligh and his supporters are in a tiny boat in the ocean for over 40 days and then board another boat to search for Fletcher. 3) A courtroom scene occurs where Bligh supporters, who were prisoners aboard the Bounty, are tried for mutiny after Bligh accuses them of collusion when they remain in Tahiti in hopes of returning to England.
The Best scenes in this film were those set inTahiti, and perhaps I would have preferred a movie with Clark Gable womanizing with the natives. I understand that this film is supposed to be painful to fit the sadism of Captain Bligh, but it also is not very compelling. In the massive scope of the film, characterization is lost and the outcome of the crewmates and the captain is not an overarching concern for film viewers. It’s hard not to like Gable’s character because of his presence on film alone, but Gable didn’t save this movie for me. The overacted and severely dated period film may have won a second Oscar for Frank Lloyd, but it didn’t convince me that this film deserved the accolades awarded to it in 1935.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
The Great Ziegfeld is a great movie. Produced just four years after the death of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the film is a cinematic spectacle that is a tribute to the life of one of the greatest Broadway producers in history. In fact, many of the original performers from the Ziegfeld Follies appear in the film including Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice. The movie stages musical numbers that even by today’s standards are astounding in their extravagant costuming, dancing, and stage construction. In addition to winning Best Picture for 1936, the film also earned Seymour Felix the Best Dance Direction Oscar for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Ray Bolger (pre-Wizard of Oz scarecrow) performs an amazing tap dance and Harriet Hoctor dances a ballet that is jaw dropping. The movie at 183 minutes is long and in the style of Broadway shows of its era, begins with an overture, has an intermission and then concludes with exit music. Despite its running time, I certainly was not bored and found myself hoping for yet another over-the-top musical production.
Next, on to the acting. William Powell provides an excellent portrayal of Flo Ziegfeld and I was surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination for his role. I especially liked Frank Morgan’s role as Flo’s good friend, Jack Billings, although I could not stop thinking that Flo was speaking to the Wizard of Oz. Luise Rainer plays the role of Flo’s first wife, Anna Held, and presents a performance that earned her Best Actress Oscar. I did enjoy Ranier’s characterization of Anna but was surprised by the Oscar win. Myrna Loy plays Flo’s second wife, Billie Burke, and continues the strong acting displayed throughout the movie.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film. It was a visual feast for the eyes, had more familiar songs than I expected, and was an interesting biography of a man I only knew by name. Of the musicals we have viewed thus far, this one is my favorite as I am a sucker for big production numbers with that “wow” factor. The sound and film quality continue to improve and many of the scenes are beautifully filmed – not only the musicals but also the quiet apartment scenes. The closing scene of Flo’s last evening, seated in his chair, flower in his hand, is especially moving. If you haven’t seen this film and enjoy musicals from the 1930’s, this should be on your must see list.
Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld was our longest film that we have seen at this point, but this biopic on the life of the eccentric Florenz Ziegfeld warrants nothing less than the 185 minutes I committed to viewing this film. A great improvement over the previous year’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld mixes the whirlwind life of the musical theater pioneer with elaborate musical numbers that Ziegfeld would have been proud of. Made four years after his death, the film is as much about entertainment as it is about paying tribute to the legend that Ziegfeld personified. While there were some liberties taken in the depiction of his life for its translation into film, MGM created a sentimental homage to Ziegfeld’s professional and private life that spanned the 40 years from the 1893 Chicago World Fair to his death in the early 1930’s.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the set design and how it is used to augment the cinematography. The Great Ziegfeld uses elaborate sets for the musical numbers and long shots to make the film audience feel as though we are actually seeing clips of the Ziegfeld Follies as a theater audience. Complete with shots framed using the dimensions of the stage as reference points; the film shows the towering, elaborate staircases and moving set pieces that truly cemented Ziegfeld as a musical impresario. While I found some of the actual songs in the musical numbers a bit drab, center piece numbers like “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” still were very catchy. Also, the tap-dancing in this film is sensational. I’m a sucker for well-choreographed tap numbers and this film brings the art of tap to life in a way that only a 1930’s era musical can do. This movie had two elements that were spliced together to form this epic tale of Ziegfeld’s life: the biopic, and the musical. Neither segment could really stand on its own, because Ziegfeld’s life would have felt incomplete without showcasing his professional life.
The film was our first biopic of the winners that we have viewed thus far, and makes a decisive entry into the Academy’s history. The only reason I feel as though it is not as well known as other winners has to do with its length and the liberties it has taken in its deviance from reality. The movie does have some filmic aspects that translate to modern audiences as a bit cliché, but overly harsh criticism of the film would ignore the fact that this is still set in depression-era America. In this pre-WWII setting, escapist cinema was what the movie-going audiences thirsted for, and its tribute to the glitz and glamour of the early days of Broadway were exactly what the audience ordered. Rather than fixating on historical inaccuracies or slight melodramatic tendencies, the audience would have left the theater pleased with the caliber of entertainment they received for their ticket price. The choices the film made for entertainment purposes do not detract from the well-made movie with spectacular sets and interesting plot twists that comprise our 1936 winner. While you won’t see this film on many AFI top 100 lists, it is hard to ignore the charm of this joyful spectacle of a tribute to one of Broadway’s most ground-breaking producers.
Director: William Dieterle
The Life of Emile Zola was a pleasant surprise. I was unfamiliar with this film’s protagonist, Emile Zola, as well as actor, Paul Muni, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Zola. The movie traces the life of the prominent French writer from his early years as a staving writer sharing a Parisian flat with his childhood friend Paul Cezanne, to becoming a popular and financially successful literary figure. The film ultimately discloses the course of events leading to his intense criticism, vindication, and untimely death in 1902,
Although I felt the movie progressed rather slowly for its first hour, the second hour was thoroughly engrossing. Once the story of Alfred Dreyfus was woven into the plot, the power of the film and its message became evident. Dreyfus was the Jewish artillery officer in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. After his innocence was made known to the French military leaders, they decided to remain silent lest the French people lose faith in the military. The accusation of Dreyfus was based in anti-Semitism, as were efforts to maintain his sentence of life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Interestingly, the only indication that Dreyfus’ religion led to his indictment was a military officer pointing to the word Jew on the Captain’s military record. No mention of Jews or Judaism is ever spoken. The movie presented the best courtroom scenes we have seen thus far and Paul Muni, as well as his defense attorney, present rousing orations. Joseph Schildkraut won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the wrongly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus
For viewers interested in early filmic interpretations and presentations of courtroom drama, exploration and exploitation of mob mentality, and the military authority’s corruption and manipulation of the chain of command, this film is up your alley. Although I question the historical accuracy of some of the events depicted, the story is nevertheless entertaining.
The Life of Emile Zola is our second biopic that we have viewed thus far, and a significantly stronger representative of the genre than The Great Ziegfeld. I do have a confession to make in regards to Emile Zola, I had never heard about the author until I saw this film. After watching the film, I did do a small amount of research about the author to supplement my knowledge as well as to assess the accuracy of historical information in the film’s portrayal. As with all films in Hollywood based upon historical events, there has to be a certain amount of manipulation of a story to make it fit into the recognized tropes of the narrative experience. This manipulation at times can affect the credibility of a film as a work of non-fiction; however, The Life of Emile Zola does not portray any glaring historical inaccuracies that would affect the film’s overarching message.
The film can be divided into two into two main segments: the life of Emile Zola prior to the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus Affair as told through the point of view of Emile Zola. For those of you who have never been to Hebrew School, studied Anti-Semitism, or studied late 19th century/early 20th century French history, the Dreyfus Affair is one of the most preeminent court cases in French history. The Dreyfus Affair details the trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason against France. The Jewish captain was indicted with no evidence of these charges by the French Military courts and banished to Devil’s Island in French Guyana. Despite a vocal minority maintaining his innocence, the French government and press demonized the convicted man and unabashedly ridiculed his lack of allegiance to the country of France. Even when soldiers of the French army came forward to testify that they had evidence that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and that Major Esterhazy was the real spy, the French government acted in an abhorrent manner. They jailed the soldiers and officers who came forward and formally pardoned Esterhazy, rather than dealing with the backlash of admitting that they had incorrectly charged Dreyfus.
The Life of Emile Zola paints the picture of the man who would impact the trial, and ultimately ensure that justice would prevail over the bureaucracy and corruption of the French judicial system. The film starts with Emile Zola (Paul Muni), living with childhood friend, Paul Cezanne, in a meager Bohemian artist apartment in Paris. Through the lens of Zola’s bohemian idealism, the film portrays the protagonist rallying against the system with brutally honest commentary on the military’s actions in their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. It also depicts him as an advocate for social justice, championing under-represented groups like French prostitutes in his uncensored portrayal of the life of a street-walker entitled, Nana. Through a rather epic montage sequence, the film catalogues Zola’s countless successes as viewers see the protagonist transform from struggling idealistic writer, to a wealthy and prolific established author. The film’s first act was a bit too prolonged for essentially a prologue to the main course of action, and I was left feeling very underwhelmed with how the story was progressing. My feelings however were ameliorated by the reemergence of Paul Cezanne, as he visits the fatter, richer, and more complacent version of his former childhood friend. Cezanne accuses Zola of becoming a member of the class that he had once had criticized, and castigates Zola for having no backbone.
So begins the second half of the film, the point in which this film begins to become worthy of the accolades of the Academy as well as earn the distinction of inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This is the point in the film that the case of Alfred Dreyfus is introduced into the story arch. The third-person omniscient narrative technique utilized by the film’s story shows the injustice of Dreyfus’ accusation, conviction, and sentencing, in order to enrage the audience. However, it is quite bothersome the way that the film downplays the significance of anti-Semitism in its portrayal of the Dreyfus case. The film does not ever overtly describe Dreyfus as a Jew, but rather shows the military officers pointing to Dreyfus’ name on a sheet of paper with Jew listed next to his rank and nationality. This mention is done so subtly that a distracted viewer could easily miss this all-important fact. The under-emphasized reference of anti-Semitism is very fitting of a Post-Production code Hollywood, which does not wish to overstep its highly regulated constrains. Also, in an era where national celebrities like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were outspoken anti-Semites, hate-mongering was still very much en vogue.
Emile’s attitudes towards the Dreyfus case change drastically when Dreyfus’ wife appears at Zola’s door to plead her case. At this point in the film, Alfred Dreyfus has already been banished on Devil’s Island for years and Zola is Mrs. Dreyfus’ last hope. Originally he is very cold to her, but as she leaves his residence she also leaves a folder of evidence that proves without a doubt her husband is innocent. There is a great shot of Zola contemplating opening up the folder, an item he perceives as a metaphorical Pandora’s Box. As he his vacillating between the actions of opening the folder or ignoring it, he notices a portrait of himself painted by his former roommate, Paul Cezanne, and Paul’s critical words replay in his head. The words trigger an impulse that seemed long-suppressed by his wealth and fame, and his muckraking spirit overtakes his desire for peace and comfort. Determined to prove himself as a harbinger of justice once more, Emile Zola pens an op-ed that appears on the front page of a major newspaper in France entitled “J’accuse”. In the article, he accuses the French military of having knowledge of Dreyfus’ innocence and participating in an elaborate cover-up. His actions were performed with the sole purpose of bringing the Dreyfus case back to court through a Libel trial. This trial would allow him to present evidence that would exonerate Alfred Dreyfus in the public sphere, but if his efforts proved unsuccessful, he would be sentenced to jail time.
The second half of the film is enthralling, poignant, and a fantastic portion of filmmaking. If the first half could have achieved the same amount of exposition with a greater focus on brevity, I would have rated the film much higher. Overall, I found the film thought-provoking and a great example of 1930’s filmmaking. In particular, the trial scene showcased the talent of the actors and the emotionally manipulative power that the film evokes. I highly recommend this powerful and thought-provoking film, because it showcases a horrible example of hatred and bigotry that is all too often forgotten.
Side note: While this blog is not a politically influenced blog, there are certain universal rights for all human beings that we believe in. While the Dreyfus case occurred some time ago, there are still many innocent people who are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit in our own country. Please check out this website and donate if you can: http://www.innocenceproject.org/
The Innocence Project’s Mission Statement from their Website:
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 289 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
The Innocence Project’s full-time staff attorneys and Cardozo clinic students provide direct representation or critical assistance in most of these cases. The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Now an independent nonprofit organization closely affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project’s mission is nothing less than to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.
Director: Frank Capra
It’s hard to imagine a person not liking a Frank Capra movie. You Can’t Take It With You incorporates the familiar Capra themes of the inherent goodness of man (unless you work for the IRS) and money is not the root of happiness. These themes resonated with Capra when he saw the George S. Kaufman / Moss Hart play on Broadway. He also immediately recognized its potential appeal to the depressions era crowds that would eventually flock to the movie.
This is our second Capra movie that has garnered both the Best Picture and Best Director honors. Although I enjoyed the romantic tension displayed by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night more than the budding romance between James Stewart and Jean Arthur, You Can’t Take It With You is still considerably fun. The film has a wonderful script that provides a vehicle for the all-star cast to display their theatrical talents. Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) plays the role of the family patriarch and purveyor of homespun philosophies of life. The story juxtaposes wealthy Wall Street financiers with a neighborhood coping with a decimated economy. The presentation of high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the economy could easily be an allegory for a present-day 1% versus 99% Occupy movement. Hopefully, today’s economy will have a Capra-inspired happy ending.
A young James Stewart offers a good performance and displays his acting potential which will continue to evolve as we explore his future Academy Award winning films. On the other hand, Jean Arthur is at the top of her game. It’s difficult to articulate the qualities that make Jean Arthur one of my favorite actresses but the combination of attractive girl-next-door looks coupled with a spunky good-natured sense of humor is infectious. Of course, a screwball comedy needs an entire cast of screwball characters, and this film delivers. Among the numerous residents inhabiting the Vanderhof household are Ann Miller, the accomplished dancer who plays a bad dancer, Donald Meek as the eccentric inventor, Mischa Auer who plays Russian dance instructor Kolenkhov, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, as the resident “on relief.” Obviously, not all of the character portrayals would be considered politically correct but this was a different era and clearly not meant maliciously.
Much of You Can’t Take It With You feels contemporary. The story holds up well and surprisingly does not feel dated. I would be remiss to mention that there were multiple scenes that had me laughing hysterically. You Can’t Take It With You is a feel good classic 1930’s film that deserves to be on your watch list if you have yet to experience it.
Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless classic, with a message and dialogue that is as relevant today as it was in 1938. You Can’t Take It With You has more a poignant message than Capra’s previous winner, romantic comedy It Happened One Night. Frank Capra is also the second director thus far to win the Academy Award for Best Picture twice, the first being Frank Lloyd. However, the talent of the prolific Capra puts him in a league of his own. Besides his two Best Picture wins, Capra has also picked up two Best Director wins for the same films. On a personal note, Capra directed one of my favorite films of all time, Arsenic and Old Lace. While I could rant about Capra for 1000 more words, I should probably go back to the purpose of this blog and discuss the film. You Can’t Take It With You comes from a rare breed of filmmaking that has the power to evoke a wide array of emotions in a viewer. I was laughing, I was happy, I was sad, I was angry. It was as if I was a marionette and Capra stood above me as a puppeteer who manipulated my emotional responses for the entire 126 minutes of the film’s running time.
The title of this film actually stems from a colloquial rephrasing of the scriptural verse 1 Timothy 6:7 “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” This is fitting of both Capra’s religious beliefs as well as the tone of the film, which could easily be considered a modern-day parable. The film was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning Drama penned by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and is a stylized morality play criticizing the impact that the over-emphasis of wealth incurs on the human psyche. Perhaps the iconic rapper, Notorious B.I.G., described the concept best in his song “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” While Capra’s own life embodies a Horatio Alger story, his roots allowed him to gain a different perspective on the role of wealth in human happiness.
The film is centered on the romance of Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James “Jimmy” Stewart), as the couple seeks acceptance of their relationship from their polarized parents. The Kirby’s are the banking kings on Wall Street, whereas the Sycamore’s have rejected the self-indulgent world of capitalism to focus on their individualized creative pursuits and whims. Though not paupers by any means, the Sycamore’s have rejected pursuing fields that do not make them happy and instead engage in businesses that allow their creativity to thrive. This creative hotbed has also attracted outsiders to settle down within their abode, as evidenced by a particularly zany exchange of dialogue between their former ice delivery man and a new recruit where the delivery man states that “[he] came to make a delivery nine years ago, and has been [there] ever since.” The Sycamore’s collect stamps, write plays, play the xylophone and harmonica, dance, make candy, and make fireworks as well engage in whatever hobbies du-jour tickle their fancy. The only real exception in the family is Alice who is working as Tony Kirby’s secretary in the Kirby Company. Tony is the Vice President of the company but only through nepotism, and has a clear disinterest in the family business.
The film has several key movements, first the establishment of the characters, then the meeting of the family, and finally the trials and tribulations of a prohibited love. One of my favorite scenes in the film comes during the meeting of the two families in which Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), Tony’s father, meets the Sycamore’s dance instructor, Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer). Anthony tells Kolenkhov that he used to wrestle, and Kolenkhov responds by flipping Mr. Kirby on his back and pinning him. The suddenness of the action and the body type of the elderly Mr. Kirby is enough to make anyone with a sense of humor break out in laughter. I’m not usually a fan of slap-stick comedy, but Capra manages to incorporate some slap-stick gags in a surprisingly artful fashion. The film also changes its tone substantially in a jail scene in which the entire cast is incarcerated. As the indignant Anthony P. Kirby rails into Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), Alices’s Grandpa, for the unpleasantness of the situation, Martin goes on a verbose rant filled with scathing criticism of both Mr. Kirby and his capitalist way of life. He describes that Kirby’s money and power have not made him any friends, and that he has forgotten what happiness even feels like. Using the metaphor of a harmonica, a relic of Kirby’s carefree past, Mr. Vanderhof dares Kirby to try and renounce his selfish ways and attempt to be a father and a human being for once in his life. Vanderhof’s point is further solidified during the sentencing of the two parties for crimes of disturbing the peace and manufacturing fireworks without a permit. While Kirby has four lawyers to represent the three members of his family, Vanderhof has a courtroom full of friends and neighbors to provide moral support. It was hard not to choke up during a particularly joyous scene in the courtroom as Vanderhoff’s supporters take up a collection and pay off his 100 dollar fine.
This film is a fantastic story, with a great cast, and a great message. The only complaint I had about this film was the racial stereotyping of the “help” in the house. However in this era of filmmaking, these patronizing portrayals of Blacks were unfortunately common place. It is important to recognize the time period in which the films that we view were made, because these racial portrayals were tame compared to peer productions. Honestly if you are reading this review and have never seen the film, go out and see it. I promise that you will not be disappointed. I don’t care which demographic that you represent, this thought-provoking and enchanting film is truly a classic of American cinema and should not overlooked.
Director: Victor Fleming
Alex – 8.5 Elliot – 9.2 IMDB 8.2 Rotten Tomatoes 8.6
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is one of the most memorable lines in movie history. The “vulgar language” must have been shocking to a 1939 audience but certainly doesn’t reflect my feeling toward the movie.
Gone With the Wind could easily be compared to this generation’s Titanic (1997). Both films were wildly popular and based on historical events woven with a myriad of characters and a doomed love story. Fortunately, Rhett Butler leaves for a new life in Charleston instead of drowning. Gone With the Wind may also be the film from the 1930’s that is most familiar to today’s movie goers. Of course, being our first Academy award winning film in Technicolor makes it much more accessible to audiences of today who view films in black and white with distain (I feel sorry for them as they don’t know the great movies they are bypassing – hopefully our blog has peaked their interest). Although not a definitive popularity measure, it is interesting that the well known Oscar winning film You Can’t Take It With You has slightly over 10,000 user reviews on IMDB, It Happened One Night and All Quiet On The Western Front have approximately 30,000 user reviews each but Gone With The Wind exceeds 110,000 user reviews (262,000 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes) – wow!
This film is truly epic both in its length (238 minutes) and grandeur. Not only does it introduce color cinema, it utilizes the medium to its full capacity. In fact, William Cameron Menzies won an honorary Academy Award for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood. The scenes of the Atlanta burning are awesome, and the scenes in the Civil War make-shift hospital are appropriately poignant. I’m sure the plantation panoramas and the magnificent shots of Scarlett silhouetted against the evening sky delighted the viewers of 1939 as much as it did me.
In addition to the film’s technical achievements, we are presented with a story of soap opera proportions based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel bolstered by a blockbuster cast of Hollywood’s finest. This film won 8 Academy Awards and was nominated for 5 others. With 13 nominations, this film became the most nominated and victorious film in the Academy’s early history. Vivien Leigh, the Best Actress winner, delivers a memorable portrayal as Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, when an actor’s dialogue comes from Sidney Howard’s Best Writing Screenplay melded with Victor Fleming’s Best Directing, the results should be stellar. My favorite award winning performance came from Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to be nominated and win an Oscar. Her portrayal of Mammy, the house servant, won her Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The emotion she evokes from her character is inspiring.
This is our third Clark Gable movie and the Hollywood idol provides a solid performance as Rhett Butler. Although he didn’t capture the Best Actor award, many 21st century movie viewers have difficulty distinguishing Clark Gable from Rhett Butler. Olivia de Havilland played the memorable milk toast Melanie Hamilton but lost as Best Actress in a Supporting Role to fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel. Leslie Howard plays Ashley Wilkes, Melanie’s husband and Scarlett’s unrequited love interest. How can I write my impressions of Gone With The Wind without mentioning Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy who famously states “Oh, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ babies” whereby Scarlett slaps her across the face. In fact, over almost four hours, Scarlett seems to slap a lot of people in the face.
Finally, I would be remiss not to comment on Max Steiner’s original musical score. The haunting melody draws you into the movie and one need only hear the first few bars of the score to immediately recognize it. Naturally, I had seen Gone With The Wind previously but this is the first time I’ve viewed it within the context of our journey through film history. I have a much greater appreciation for its groundbreaking achievements and its importance in the pantheon of film making history. As we enter the films of the 1940’s, I am anxious to see the continued evolution.
To round out the end of the 1930’s Best Picture Winners, we have perhaps the most epic film of its era, Gone with the Wind. In the sake of full disclosure, I have seen this film more than any of the other Best Picture winner pre-1970. Watching it again however, is never a chore. Despite its exceptional length, 238 minutes if you include overture, intermission, and exit music, this melodramatic David O’ Selznick production is an undisputed classic of American filmmaking. This movie and I also have a particular connection due to my undergraduate education at Emory University in Atlanta. I have been to the theater where the movie premiered, The Fabulous Fox Theater, and have been to Margaret Mitchell’s house. I even took a class offered at Emory that focused on Film and Segregation, which had several hours of lecture and discussion about the film and its portrayal of race. Honestly, I will always have an emotional connection with this film and it will clearly reflect in my analysis but “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The production of this film has several particular aspects that set it apart from previous Best Picture winners, particularly the fact that this film was in color. The process of Technicolor added an even more epic quality to the highest grossing film in history in terms of inflation adjusted dollars. While James Cameron may try and dispute this fact, the staggering 196 million tickets sold for Gone with the Wind is unrivaled. That figure does include re-releases, which at least was not as profit-mongering as James Cameron and George Lucas’ re-releases of their classics in 3D. Rather than being redundant, I’ll wait till 1997’s review before panning Titanic’s re-release. I also want to point out one additional item of note before actually beginning this review; director Victor Fleming had perhaps the biggest one-two punch in cinematic history in 1939. On top of Gone with the Wind, Fleming also directed the other Technicolor titan of 1939, The Wizard of Oz.
A film of this epic length deserves an epic review, but I shall try to err on the side of brevity in order to not cast a disproportionate light on the film. The film opens with the trope of nostalgia highlighted by a generation that signified the last of a dying breed of Southern aristocracy. Our main heroine is Scarlett O’Hara, played by the incomparable Vivien Leigh who deserved every ounce of the golden statue she earned for her portrayal. Her line delivered at the conclusion of the first half of the film is perhaps one of my favorite moments in cinematic history. It is near impossible to not be moved as Scarlett on the brink of starvation curses to the sky, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
It would also be impossible to discuss Gone with the Wind without mentioning the stellar performance of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. This is Gable’s third appearance in a best picture winner, and his portrayal of Rhett Butler is his most iconic role in his filmography despite the Best Actor snub. I could spend the review recounting endless Rhett Butler one-liners, but that feels a little bit contrite. Let me instead grace this review with some stray observations and thoughts, and one overarching imperative statement: See this film. I understand the time commitment it requires, but it is an important foundation of any film aficionado’s lexicon and a true masterpiece of early Hollywood.
This film is about land both metaphorically and literally, and in particular the land of the past. Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell) starts the film by describing to Scarlett that the only thing that matters is Tara. Tara is the name of the O’Hara’s plantation, but it is also Latin for Earth. While the Latin is spelled a little bit differently, Terra, this is clearly a metaphor from the Margaret Mitchell story that has a deeper significance than merely the O’Hara’s plantation. After all, the Civil War was fought over state’s rights and what power a federal governing body should have over an individual’s property. Do not read that statement as a belittling of human rights and the slavery issue, which was also an instrumental issue in the secession of the Southern states. This value of property and land was a continuance of a tradition that had lost traction in the progression of society, and the South vehemently wished to protect their neo-aristocracy. Rhett Butler describes the issues with waging war with the North in his sentiment that “all we [the South] have is cotton and slaves and arrogance.” This statement represents a clear foreshadowing of the impending disaster that will accompany the ill-fated war for independence.
This film is an effective melodrama and emotionally manipulative tragedy. Given the amount of character development in the film, it is hard to watch awful things happen to the characters that we have become so attached to. In particular the fates of Bonnie Blue Butler and Melanie Hamilton cut the audience to the bone. Some of the special effects, like Gerald’s riding accident, are a tad dated, however the magnificent cinematography highlighted by the piercing red background allow us to forgive these insignificant miscues. Honestly, some of the freeze frames of this film could easily be paintings, especially the beautifully depicted silhouette of Rhett and Scarlett against the backdrop of a burning Atlanta. One of the most noticeable uses of a crane shot in our films thus far, also provides a jarring display of the magnitude of the wounded soldiers littering the streets in the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta.
While I will try and not rant on this issue, I want to let it be known that I don’t like Ashley Wilkes, and don’t understand his appeal to Scarlett. I understand he is the man that she wants because she cannot have him, but how could you ever possibly shun Clark Gable for such a weak-willed man. Also, I know that this takes place in the Antebellum South/ Civil War Era/ Reconstruction-era but Ashley and Melanie are cousins and that will always weird me out. I know it’s a family tradition and an effort to keep Twelve Oaks in the Wilkes family tree, but that family tree is going to have a lot of genetic problems at this rate. I understand that Ashley is important to the tragic plotline and I’m not recommending for his role in Scarlett’s life to be changed, but I will never enjoy watching Ashley’s storyline. There is a perfect sense of irony when Scarlett is relegated to the duty of midwife to help birth Ashley and Melanie’s child, especially with the burning of Atlanta in the background. Ashley is a good vehicle for showing the development of Scarlett from a self-indulgent Southern belle at a barbeque at Twelve Oaks, to a strong independent woman. Scarlett is without a doubt the strongest female role that we have seen thus far in our film journey, and her transformation from helplessness to murderer is quite the paradigm shift.
Lastly, I cannot talk about Gone with the Wind without mentioning the issues I have with race portrayal in this film. While I can try and pretend that the film’s portrayal of Blacks is merely dated, the social activist in me wants to scream out for justice. This film was made before the Civil Rights movement and I feel as though Hollywood has shown a historical tendency to make caricatures of black culture and speech patterns. Honestly, I feel as though that tendency still exists in today’s film going experience but in a different format (Tyler Perry I’m looking at you), but that is a different rant. The role of Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) at least provided characterization and dimension for a change, compared to previous portrayals of black servants with no inkling of depth. I am very proud of the Academy for giving Hattie McDaniel the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, because she delivered her performance with such power and grace that she demanded her accolades. Hattie was also the first black person to ever win an Academy Award, so she is certainly a trailblazer in the white-dominated Hollywood world. However, not all parts of the country were as accepting of McDaniel’s race as Hollywood. The Fox Theater in Atlanta refused to allow her to attend the premiere of the film because it was a White’s only theater, a fact that will always be a blemish on that fantastic venue. The portrayal of Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) was not as forgiving as that of Mammy, and has very patronizing emphasis on her high-pitched voice and child-like timidity.
While there are clear issues with this film in regards to race, however from a filmmaking and historical standpoint this film is classic in every sense of the word. I conclude with a reprise of an aforementioned imperative statement: See this film.