“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

Several years ago, I had come across an article that provided a list of old classics that the author felt might be overrated. One of those movies turned out to be the 1939 Oscar winning film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Not only did the author accuse the movie of being both racist and sexist, he also claimed that the movie had not aged very well over the past seven decades.

Did I agree with the author? Well, let me put it this way. I would say that “GONE WITH THE WIND” has managed to withstand the tests of time . . . to a certain extent. As the author had pointed out, the sexism and racism are obvious and rather off-putting. First of all, the slaves came across as too servile for my taste. Although there were moments when it seemed the slave Prissy did not particularly care for the movie’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. And although Prissy was not the only dimwitted character in the story (think of Melanie and Charles Hamilton’s Aunt Pittypatt, the Tarleton brothers, and yes, even Charles Hamilton himself), she had the bad luck to spout that unfortunate line that must have been the bane of actress Butterfly McQueen’s life – “Miz Scarlett, I know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”. The movie’s portrayal of the newly freed slaves struck me as schizophrenic. They either remained loyal to their former masters – like Mammy, Prissy and Pork (the O’Hara house servants); or they were shiftless, lazy blacks who easily “bought the Yankees’ lies” and preyed upon their former masters and mistresses – especially white women. This last sentence reminded me of the Shantytown sequence. And I just remembered that both a white man and a black man nearly attacked Scarlett before she was rescued by Big Sam. In other words, this film was just as insulting to working-class whites (think former overseer Jonas Wilkerson and Emmy Slattery), as it was to the black characters. I forgot that despite its occasional celebration of the working-class (especially during the Depression Era), many Hollywood films tend to reek of class bigotry.

And the sexism was no better. I found the story’s male romantic lead Rhett Butler’s determination to view Scarlett as his own personal child bride rather distasteful – along with his act of marital rape. The first half of the movie allowed Rhett to express some kind of respect toward Scarlett’s pragmatism and ruthlessness. But once she became his wife, he seemed to long for some kind of child bride as well. But if I must be honest, I have seen movies that are just as bad or even worse. I realize that the Melanie Hamilton character is highly regarded by many as the ideal woman, I personally found the character hard to accept. I nearly rolled my eyes in one scene that featured her sacrificing her wedding ring for “the Cause” (namely the Confederacy). That woman put the Madeline Fabray character from John Jakes’ North and South” trilogy to shame. Ideal characters – especially ideal women – have always been a turn off for me. They tend to smack of illusions of the worst kind.

I had once seen “GONE WITH THE WIND” at one of my local movie theaters when it had been re-released to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1989. The first half of the film struck me as being well-paced and filmed. The dialogue sparkled and Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, and the rest of the cast could not have been better. I could not say the same for the film’s second half. The real problem with “GONE WITH THE WIND” manifested in Part Two. Once Scarlett had married Rhett . . . the movie slowly began to fizzle. Oh sure, it had its iconic moments – Scarlett appearing at Ashley’s birthday party in the infamous red dress, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death and Mammy’s grief-stricken reaction. Unfortunately, it did not take me very long to fall asleep . . . even before poor Bonnie Blue’s death. I managed to wake up in time to witness Hattie McDaniel’s brilliant monologue on the decline of Butlers’ marriage and Bonnie Blue’s death. I do not think one can really blame the movie’s credited screenwriter, Sidney Howard and the screenwriters who worked on the project. Margaret Mitchell’s novel had this same problem as the movie. Namely, it started brilliantly and ended with me crying in despair for the story to end. I suspect that Selznick had decided not to risk earning the fans’ ire by refraining from changing the novel’s structure too much after the other changes he had made.

And the main reason why “GONE WITH THE WIND” threatened to fizzle out in the end? Quite frankly, the story seemed unable to maintain the same pace throughout the film. Even worse, this seemed to have turned “GONE WITH THE WIND” into a movie with conflicting genres. I do not know whether to list it as a historical drama or a costumed melodrama. Most of the movie seemed like a historical drama – especially the first half that ends with Scarlett’s return to Tara. But once Scarlett’s second husband – Frank Kennedy – was killed during the Shantytown attack sequence, the movie purely became a costumed melodrama. This change in genre not only made the movie seemed slightly schizophrenic, it nearly grounded the film’s pacing to a halt.

There were other minor aspects of “GONE WITH THE WIND” that I found rather questionable. Why was Melanie Wilkes living in Atlanta, following her marriage to Ashley Wilkes? Why did she not live with her in-laws at the Wilkes’ plantation, Twelve Oaks? And why was Scarlett still living at Tara, following her marriage to Charles Hamilton? She should have moved into the home of his aunt, Pittypat Hamilton, in Atlanta. One featured a brief scene in which Eddie Anderson’s Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the Wilkes’ backyard proclaiming it to be “the last chicken in Atlanta”. Really? In December 1863, when the Union Army had yet to set foot in the state of Georgia, except at Fort Polaski, off the coast of Savannah? And could someone explain why social leaders like Mrs. Mayweather, Mrs. Meade and Aunt Pittypat needed Melanie’s approval for an auction regarding the city’s young female elite at the local charity bazaar and ball? Melanie was only a year or two older than Scarlett and probably eighteen to nineteen years old at the time. I found the entire moment implausible. And who exactly created the infamous green dress that Scarlett wore to pay Rhett a visitor, when he was a prisoner of the Union Army? Scarlett? Her sisters? Mammy, who was a housekeeper and not a seamstress? Prissy? Why was Rhett a prisoner of the Union Army . . . after the war ended? And why did Big Sam have that ludicrous argument with the other O’Hara slave over who would order the other field slaves to stop working? He was the foreman. It was his job. The other man should have known that.

Speaking of Big Sam, he was also featured in a scene in which Scarlett spotted him and other former Tara field slaves marching through Atlanta and on their way to dig ditches for the Confederate Army defending the city. What made me shake my head in disbelief was not only Sam’s cheerful attitude toward this task, but the fact that his fellow slaves were singing “Go Down Moses”, a song associated with American slaves’ desire to flee bondage and the Underground Railroad. Either David O. Selznick or his production team had no knowledge of the historical significance of this song, or . . . this scene was some kind of ironic joke. Last, but not least, one scene in the movie’s second half found Scarlett and Ashley arguing over their use of convicts as labor for her lumber mill. The problem is that the convicts were all white, and most convicts – then and now – were African-Americans. Is it possible that Selznick may have been guilty of whitewashing? Apparently so.

“GONE WITH THE WIND” does have its virtues. Most of the performances were first-rate. It especially benefited from Vivien Leigh as the movie’s lead, Scarlett O’Hara; Clark Gable as the roguish Rhett Butler; Hattie McDaniel as Mammy; Olivia De Havilland as the sweetly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara; Barbara O’Neil as Ellen O’Neil; Butterfly McQueen as Prissy; Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, and even Leslie Howard, who had the thankless job of portraying the aristocratic loser, Ashley Wilkes. In fact, one has to give Leigh credit for basically carrying a nearly four-hour movie on her own. But there were other performances that I found memorable – including Oscar Polk, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Everett Brown, Carroll Nye and Rand Brooks. Leigh, Gable, De Havilland and McDaniels all received Academy Award nominations. Both Leigh and McDaniels won in their respective categories.

The movie also benefited from a strong first half, which covered the war years. From the movie’s opening on Tara’s porch to that last moment when a besieged Scarlett vowed to “never go hungry again” in the middle of one of Tara’s fields, the movie steamed ahead with drive, without rushing along too fast. In fact, I would say that the film’s strongest sequence began with the Union Army’s siege of Atlanta and ended with Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy’s arrival at Tara. That sequence alone did an excellent job of expressing the horrors of war not only from the military point of view, but also from the viewpoints of civilians like Scarlett. Marceella Rabwin, producer David O. Selznick’s former executive assistant, had credited Victor Fleming not only for his direction of this sequence, but also the film’s strong drive and pacing. And since he ended up as the movie’s main director, I guess I will also give him credit. It still amazes me that a Civil War movie with no battle scenes whatsoever, could have such a strong and well-paced narrative – at least in its first half. The movie also benefited from the hiring of the Oscar winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, who used storyboards (a first in Hollywood for a live-action film) to provide the movie’s look and style. He was able assisted by another Oscar winner, Lyle R. Wheeler, who created the movie’s art designs. Many have complimented Walter Plunkett for his costume designs for the film. Granted, he had created some beautiful costumes. But my two favorite costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in the images below, are not particularly well-known:

However, I do have a problem with some of Plunkett’s designs. He had a bad habit of injecting modern fashion styles into some of his 19th century designs. Another virtue of the movie came from the score written and orchestrated by Max Steiner. Although he had received a nomination for his work, Steiner was defeated by Herbert Stothart’s work for “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. Menzies’ storyboards must have been a godsend not only for Wheeler’s Oscar winning art direction and Plunkett’s costume designs, but also Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes’ photography. I found the latter so beautiful and colorful that only the following images can only do further justice to the film’s striking visuals:

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What else can I say about “GONE WITH THE WIND”? Unlike many other film critics and fans, it is not my favorite Best Picture winner. It is not even my favorite 1939 film. Between the overt political incorrectness and a weak second half, I would have never voted it as the 1939 Best Picture Oscar. But . . . despite its political incorrectness and the dull last hour of the film, “GONE WITH THE WIND” still managed to hold up pretty well after 77 years, thanks to its talented cast and crew and the drive of producer David O. Selznick.

 

“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.

Ten Favorite CIVIL WAR Movies and Miniseries

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the American Civil War:

TEN FAVORITE CIVIL WAR MOVIES AND MINISERIES

1. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – An almost excellent miniseries adaptation of John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “Love and War”, despite having a few problems with some of the plotlines and characters. If you like over-the-top period pieces, this is your story. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze, James Read and Lesley Anne-Down.

2. “Gettysburg” (1993) – Movie adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the three-day battle at Gettysburg during the war. First class. Starring Tom Berrenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.

3. “Glory” (1989) – Movie about the famous all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment during the war. Superb and highly recommended. The movie starred Matthew Broderick, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Cary Elwes.

4. “Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterson and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this excellent, two-part television adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th president.

5. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Love story about a Confederate deserter trying to return home to North Carolina and the love of his life. Beautiful love story. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renee Zellewiger.

6. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – A three-part miniseries about two related families – one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia during the Civil War. Pretty good. The miniseries starred John Hammond and Stacy Keach.

7. “Class of ’61” (1993) – TV movie about two West Point graduates during the first months of the Civil War and the people in their lives. The movie starred Dan Futterman, Clive Owen, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney and Josh Lucas.

8. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Intriguing Civil War melodrama about a wounded Union soldier convalescing at girls’ school in Mississippi. The movie starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

9. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – Three men search for missing Confederate gold in this Spaghetti Western set in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Great movie that starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

10. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – The best thing about this Oscar winner is its first half, which featured the trials and tribulations of Georgia belle, Scarlett O’Hara, during the war. The movie starred Oscar winners Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?