Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

I really do not know what to say about Cecil B. DeMille. His movies have always produced mixed feelings within me. But there are a few that I would have no trouble watching over again. And one of them is his 1942 film, “REAP THE WILD WIND”.

Following the success of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind” and its 1939 cinematic adaptation, Hollywood spent nearly two decades trying to repeat the success of the latter. This campaign began with Warner Brothers’ 1938 film,“JEZEBEL” and probably ended with MGM’s 1957 epic, “RAINTREE COUNTY”. Among the “moonlight-and-magnolias” films that hit the movie theaters during this period was “REAP THE WILD WIND”, which DeMille both produced and directed.

“REAP THE WILD WIND” was based upon Thelma Strabel’s 1940 novel, which was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post”magazine. The movie tells the story of an antebellum Florida belle named Loxi Claiborne, who runs a Key West salvage business founded by her late father. Following his death, she assumed control of the business to keep her family financially secure. Loxie’s mother deplores her participation in such rough business and would prefer her to follow the example of her Cuban-American cousin, Drusilla Alston, by behaving like a well-bred Southern belle. Loxie eventually finds romance when a hurricane forces a ship called The Jubilee to founder off the Key West coast, leading her crew to rescue its master, Captain Jack Stuart. Because Loxi and her crew did not arrive first to the scene, another salvage crew led by Lexi’s Yankee-born business rival, King Cutler, acquires the wrecked Jubilee’s cargo. It is also revealed that Cutler had hired Jack’s first officer to deliberately wreck the ship. And unbeknownst to Loxie and Cutler, her cousin Drusilla and his younger Dan have fallen in love. Loxi and Jack fall deeper into love, as she nurses him back to health. When they both realize that Jack might be fired by Charleston lawyer Steve Tolliver, who serves as manager of the Devereaux Lines, the shipping company that owns the Jubilee; Loxi schemes to win a plum captain’s position for Jack by seducing Steve and convincing him not to fire Jack. Instead, a surprising romantic triangle ensures, when Loxi finds herself becoming attracted to Steve. And this romantic triangle, leads to surprising tragedy for several of the movie’s characters.

The 1942 movie not only benefited from Hollywood’s fascination with the Old South, but also from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Americana” phrase that may have began with 1936’s “THE PLAINSMAN” and ended with either the 1947 movie,“UNCONQUERED” or the 1952 Best Picture, “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”. Who knows? What I find interesting is that I ended up enjoying “REAP THE WILD WIND”, despite its shortcomings. And it certainly had plenty of those. One flaw that caught my interest was the ridiculous trial in which Jack Stuart faced prosecution for deliberately wrecking the pride of the Devereaux Shipping Lines – the Southern Cross. I found it ludicrous for a few reasons. One, Steve Tolliver was a Charleston maritime lawyer. How on earth was he able to serve as prosecutor for a criminal case that originated and was held in another city and state – namely Key West? And it seemed wrong for Steve to be prosecuting a man for a crime that personally involved him. The trial also featured the testimony of a free black sailor named Salt Meat. Were free blacks allowed to serve as a witness for the prosecution . . . against a white defendant? I rather doubt it.

But the real problem I had with “REAP THE WILD WIND” were the one-dimensional characterizations that permeated the story. At least four of the movie’s characters proved to be complex – Loxi Clairborne, Steve Tolliver and Dan Cutler and especially Captain Jack Stuart. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many of the other major characters. One of those one-dimensional characters proved to be the movie’s main villain, King Cutler. Many stories about the Antebellum South have featured villains that were usually the following – an expatriate Yankee, a slave ship captain or a plantation overseer. Sometimes, the villain would be a combination of two or all three. Cutler turned out to be a sea captain and Loxi’s rival . . . who shipped slaves on the side. He was also the personification of one-dimensional evil. The Drusilla Alston character proved to be your typical Southern belle of the Old South . . . a second-rate Melanie Wilkes, but with only the mild manners. And of course, “REAP THE WILD WIND” had to feature not only its share of African-American stereotypes, but also a virtual rip-off of the Mammy character from “GONE WITH THE WIND” in the form of the Clairbornes’ maid, Maum Maria. Loxi’s rival for Steve’s affections, Ivy Devereaux, proved to be another cliché – namely the bitchy and spoiled Southern belle. The movie also features another cliché, Captain Philpott, who was not only Loxi’s ship master, but also the personification of the “salty” sea captain. Even worse, he was forced to spout “I’m a good Yankee” in nearly every other scene he was in . . . as if being a New Englander was not only a crime to the other (and Southern-born) characters in the movie, but also to moviegoers from all over the country.

Thankfully, “REAP THE WILD WIND” still had plenty of virtues that managed to overcome its flaws. One, it is a beautiful looking film, thanks to cinematographers Victor Milner and William Skall’s outstanding work with Technicolor. Below are examples of their work:

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Milner and Skall were not the only ones that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier, along with George Sawley’s set decorations and Natalie Visart’s colorful costume designs certainly maintained the movie’s early 1840s setting. But I have to commend Edward Overstreet and Barney Wolff’s special effects; along with the visual effects team of Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, William L. Pereira, and Louis Mesenkop did a stupendous job with the movie’s two special effects scenes – the hurricane at the beginning of the film, the giant squid that both Steve and Jack encountered underwater. The Hollywood community must have took notice of the film’s visual style. Milner and Skall earned Oscar nominations for their photography. Anderson, Dreier and Sawley all earned nominations for Best Art Direction. And the visual team of Edouart, Jennings, Pereira and Mesenkop won Oscars for the movie’s visual effects. The nominations and wins were all well deserved, as far as I am concerned.

I must admit that despite the barrage of one-dimensional characters, “REAP THE WILD WIND” proved to be a first-rate story. It was nicely balanced with romance, drama and adventure. It featured a fascinating heroine who proved to be a complex character and not some one-note cliché. Even the love triangle proved to be interesting, especially since two parties of the triangle – Loxi and Jack – ended up underestimating Steve a great deal. I found that fascinating. And although I originally found the love story between Drusilla and Dan a bit sacchrine, it proved to have great consequences in the end. I read somewhere that the screenwriters – too numerous for me to list – made many alterations to Strabel’s novel. Since I have never read the novel, I see no point in comparing the two. I only hope that Strabel’s novel proved to be as exciting and well-paced as the 1942 movie.

Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional characterizations in the film, I must admit that the cast managed to give some pretty good performances. Raymond Massey injected a great deal of energy and style into his portrayal of the villainous King Cutler. Despite being saddled with a remake of the Mammy character, Louise Beavers was equally entertaining as Maum Maria. There was one scene in which her character complained of Loxi taking her for granted that had me on the floor laughing, thanks to Beavers’ sharp performance. Both Susan Hayward and Martha O’Driscoll were solid as the two one-dimensional Southern belles, but it seemed obvious to me that they were better than the material given to them. And also Lynne Overman proved to be entertaining as Loxi’s loyal Yankee Captain Philpott. DeMille managed to capture another aspect of “GONE WITH THE WIND” by casting Oscar Polk (who portrayed Pork in the 1939 film) in the role of the free black sailor, Salt Meat. And Polk made the best of it in a well-acted scene in which he described the sinking of the Southern Cross during Jack’s trial.

But four cast members had the opportunity to shine in roles that proved to be complex. Ray Milland did a great job in portraying the intelligent and somewhat sly Charleston lawyer, Steve Tolliver. I was impressed at how he skillfully balanced Steve’s strong-willed nature and gentlemanly nature – a balance that kept the other two major characters offguard. One of those characters is Captain Jack Stuart, who thanks to the script and John Wayne’s skillful performance, proved to be the most complex in the movie. Jack Stuart also proved to be Wayne’s first character with an obvious dark side and he made the best of it. Paulette Goddard, who was one of the four final actresses considered for the Scarlett O’Hara role, was cast as the movie’s main heroine, Loxi Clairborne. And she was excellent as the headstrong Loxi, whose heart seemed to be bigger than her sense. I was also impressed at how Goddard did an excellent job in conveying Loxi’s reluctance to admit the latter’s true feelings for Steve. More importantly, not only did she create a strong screen chemistry with Wayne; she and Milland proved to be a sizzling screen team. In fact, this was the second of their four screen pairings. Robert Preston, who has proven to be a favorite of mine, was excellent as King Cutler’s younger brother, Dan. Preston did a great job in conveying Dan’s torn feelings over his admiration for his more ruthless brother and his love for the ladylike Drusilla.

I am not going to pretend that “REAP THE WILD WIND” was the epitome of Cecil B. DeMille’s career. It suffered from some unrealistic plot moments and plenty of one-dimensional characterizations. But the movie did benefit from a gorgeous visual style, an exciting and well-paced plot and some pretty damn good performances from a cast led by Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard and John Wayne. More importantly, all of this was crafted together with style, verve and excitement by Hollywood icon, Cecil B. DeMille.

“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” (1940) Review

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“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” (1940) Review

Whenever one conjured the image of Warner Brothers Studio during the 1930s and 40s, hard-hitting crime dramas or social commentaries come to mind. I would certainly not view melodramas – costumed or otherwise – as part of the studio’s usual repertoire. Then in 1933, Hal Wallis became the studio’s new production chief and eventually allowed the studio to release more films with a wider variety. And when Bette Davis became “Queen of the Lot” in the mid-to-late 1930s, the release of melodramas by Warner Brothers became more common. 

One of the melodramas associated with Davis was “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”, the 1940 movie adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. Set in France and northeastern United States during the mid-to-late 1840s, the movie told the story of a newly hired French schoolteacher at an American school, who finds herself reliving her past experiences with a French aristocratic family to her new students gossiping over the scandal that had followed her across the Atlantic. The movie begins in 1848 United States. Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy-Desportes has been hired as the new French instructor at a girls’ school. To her dismay, she discovers that her new students are aware of the scandal that drove her out of France. Instead of resigning from the school, she decides to tell her students about her experiences with the family of the Duc de Praslin and Duchesse de Praslin

The movie jumps back to 1846, during the last years of the Orleans monarchy, when Henriette arrives in France, following a five-year stint as a governess for an English family. After an interview with the Duc and Duchesse, Henriette is hired to act as governess for their three daughters and son. Although Henriette endears herself to the Duc and his four children, the Duchesse seemed to resent her presence. Due to an erratic temperament and an all compassing love for her husband, the Duchesse begins to suspect that Henriette is not only stealing the love of her children, but more importantly her husband. Despite her happy relationship with the de Praslin children, Henriette is forced to deal with the Duchesse’ increasingly hostile behavior, a growing awareness of the Duc’s feelings for her . . . and her own feelings for him. The tensions within the family culminates in the Duchesse’s brutal death, which leads to a great deal of legal problems for Henriette.

“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” proved to be a successful film, but not quite a major box office hit. I read somewhere that some at the Warner Brothers Studios blamed the movie’s elaborate production designs for overwhelming the other aspects of the movie. I do not know if I could agree with this assessment. Granted, I found some of Carl Jules Weyl’s art designs of 1840s France a bit grandiose – especially in scenes featuring the de Praslin household. But considering the high level of melodrama and characterization, I find this opinion a bit hard to accept. I also find it difficult to agree with this slightly negative opinion of the movie’s visual style. Personally, I rather enjoyed it. I thought Weyl and his staff did an excellent job in re-creating the movie’s period – 1846 to 1848 via production designs, set designs, Warren Low’s editing and especially Ernest Haller’s Oscar nominated cinematography. I also have to compliment Orry-Kelly’s costume designs. The Australian-born designer had also created the costumes for some of Bette Davis’ movie, including 1938’s “JEZEBEL” and 1939’s “JUAREZ”. The designer could have easily been sloppy and re-used the costumes from those particular movies. Instead, Orry-Kelly created costumes that more or less accurately reflected the fashions of the mid-to-late 1840s.

While reading another review of “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”, the writer complained that he/she found it difficult to believe that a forbidden romance between a French aristocrat and his governess led to the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 and the fall of theJuly Monarchy in France. Apparently, the reviewer had failed to do any research or read Rachel Field’s novel. AFter all, the novel was based upon history, including Field’s family background. Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (or what was her real name) was one of Field’s ancestors. And from what I have read, the real scandal that surrounded the governess and the duke had a major impact on the 1848 revolution that broke out in France. But was the movie’s historical background completely accurate? I honestly do not know. I would have to read more on the 1848 Revolution in France and the life of the Duc de Praslin. If I have one complaint about the movie’s handling of this historical background, I do wish that Casey Robinson’s screenplay could have provided more hints about the upcoming political upheaval.

Overall, I really enjoyed “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”. It is rare to come across a first-rate costume melodrama that can keep me enthralled during its entire running time. And this movie managed to achieve this, thanks to not only Robinson’s screenplay, but also Anatole Litvak’s steady direction. This was especially apparent in the first two-thirds of the movie that chronicled Henriette’s troubles with her American students, her arrival in France and her working and personal relationships with the de Praslin family. The movie’s best segment centered around the months she spent in the de Praslin family’s employment. Once, Henriette is dismissed by the Duchesse de Praslin for imagined slights, the movie struggled to maintain its momentum. This last third of the film centered on Henriette’s attempts to retrieve a reference from the Duchesse, the latter’s violent death, the legal wranglings that surrounded the murder and the finale in the United States. And yet . . . this last third of the film dragged so much – especially the period in which Henriette was in prison – that it threatened to overshadow my enjoyment of the film. 

Aside from one particular performance, I have no problems with the movie’s cast. Bette Davis gave an engrossing and subtle performance as the movie’s lead character, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes. I will admit there were times I found the character a bit ideal for my liking – especially in the scenes featuring the governess and her charges. But the scenes featuring the growing love between Henriette and the Duc de Praslin and her conflicts with the Duchesse allowed Davis to superbly portray the governess more as a human being and less as a figure of feminine ideal. Charles Boyer was superb as the Duc de Praslin, a practical and loving man who found himself trapped in a marriage with a woman he no longer love. I feel it is to his credit that he could make the audience feel sympathetic toward a man who not only harbored adulterous feelings for another woman, but also murdered his wife. 

The movie also featured fine performances from a supporting cast that included Jeffrey Lynn as Henriette’s future husband, the Reverend Henry Field; Harry Davenport as the de Praslin groundskeeper Pierre; Montagu Love as the Duc de Praslin’s father-in-law, Marshal Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de la Porta; and Henry Daniell as Monsieur Broussais, the man charged with investigating the Duchesse’s murder. “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” also benefited from excellent performances from the child actors who portrayed Henriette’s charges. I was especially impressed by June Lockhart and Virginia Weidler, who portrayed the Duc and Duchesse’s two older offsprings. The only performance I had trouble with Barbara O’Neil’s portrayal of Frances, the Duchesse du Praslin. I realize the latter was supposed to be an emotional and possessive woman, whose selfishness left her family out in the cold. O’Neil was fine in those scenes in which she conveyed the Duchesse’s coldness and attempts at indifference toward Henriette. Otherwise, her shrill rants and emotional outbursts struck me as hammy. I am surprised that O’Neil was the only cast member to earn an Academy Award nomination for acting.

I cannot say that I agree with the old criticism of the production designs for “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”. I believe the movie does suffer from some flaws that include occasional hammy acting from Barbara O’Neil and the slow pacing that nearly bogged down the third act. But Anatole Litvak’s direction, along with a first-rate screenplay by Casey Robinson, excellent production designs, and superb performances from a cast led by Bette Davis and Charles Boyer have led me to regard “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” as an excellent example of a Hollywood costume melodrama at its best.