“JEZEBEL” (1938) Review

“JEZEBEL” (1938) Review

Following the release of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind”, some Hollywood studios scrambled to find a way to cash in on its success. Producer David O. Selznick managed to purchase the film rights to Mitchell’s novel. However, Warner Brothers Studios decided to do its own Southern melodrama called “JEZEBEL”.

Directed by William Wyler, “JEZEBEL” starred Bette Davis in the title role as a headstrong New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden in the early 1850s. Julie’s vanity and willful nature leads her to a series of actions, culminating in the loss of the man she loves, a banker named Preston “Pres” Dillard. The movie begins with Julie and Preston engaged and the former demanding the full attention of the latter. When Pres refuses to drop his work and accompany her on a shopping expedition for the upcoming Olympus Ball, Julie decides to retaliate by ordering a red dress (in New Orleans society, virgins wear white). Although Pres accompanies Julie to the ball and dances with her, he eventually has enough of her temperamental and foolhardy behavior and breaks off their engagement. Then he leaves New Orleans to spend some time up North in New York City. Julie eventually realizes she had made a major blunder and spends a year grieving over her broken engagement. However, she becomes determined to mend fences with him, when he returns to New Orleans. But their reunion proves to be bittersweet, due to Pres’ new companion – his bride – and the potential danger of a yellow fever pandemic within the city.

The road to the 1938 movie began with playwright Owen Davis Jr., whose play of the same title made its Broadway debut in December 1933. Starring Miriam Hopkins, the play only ran on Broadway for over a month before it eventually flopped. Someone at Warner Brothers must have seen some kind of potential in this Southern melodrama for the studio had purchased the play back in 1937. Rumor has it that the studio had specifically purchased it for Bette Davis as compensation for her failure to win the part of Scarlett O’Hara for David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Mitchell’s novel. The truth is that Selznick had yet to consider his leading lady for the 1939 film back in 1937. I think Warner Brothers saw the story provided a juicy role for Davis and purchased it. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in the 1933 play, had hoped to be cast in the coveted role. Needless to say, she was very disappointed when Wallis informed her that he had only “considered her” for the role. Warner Brothers had originally cast Jeffrey Lynn for the role of Julie’s true love, banker Preston Dillard. However, the producers of a play he was appearing in refused to release him and the studio eventually turned to 20th Century-Fox star Henry Fonda as a last minute replacement. As for the film’s director, Wallis and studio chief Jack Warner’s first choice as director was Edmund Goulding (who had directed “GRAND HOTEL”), who was eventually dropped. Next, they approached Michael Curtiz (future “CASABLANCA” director), who dropped out at the last moment. They finally hired William Wyler, who had a contract with Samuel Goldwyn at the time.

There have been many comparisons between “JEZEBEL” and the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Considering the settings and leading female roles for both films, I could see why. But this is about my opinion of “JEZEBEL”. The 1938 movie is not perfect. Since the film is set in the Antebellum South, naturally it would feature characters that are African-American slaves. With the exception of two characters, the majority of them are portrayed in the usual “happy slaves” literary trope that has marred a good number of Old Hollywood films set during the 19th century. You know . . . infantilizing the black characters. One scene featuring Julie’s maid, Zette, enthusiastically accepting Julie’s infamous red gown as a present. Now, any maid worth her salt would recognize the gown as trash. A black maidfrom the 1939 comedy, “DAY TIME WIFE”, certainly regarded a cheap rabbit fur as trash and contemptuously rejected it as a throwaway present. But this wince-inducing portrayal of blacks in “JEZEBEL” seemed to be at its zenith in one particular scene that featured the Halcyon slaves greeting Julie’s guests upon their arrival at her plantation . . . with cheers. Mind you, I have seen worse in the 1957 movie, “BAND OF ANGELS”. Another major scene that I found equally wince-inducing featured Julie and a group of young slaves surrounding her, while they sing “Raise a Ruckus” to her guests. Yikes. I find ironic that a film like “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which was equally guilty of its cliched portrayal of African-Americans, managed to feature at least three or four memorable black characters. I cannot say the same for “JEZEBEL”, despite having the likes of Eddie Anderson (who was also in the 1939 Best Picture winner) and Theresa Harris in its cast. William Wyler redeemed himself, I am happy to say, in his 1956 movie, “FRIENDLY PERSUASION”. Ironically, a good number of the white minor characters – namely men – seemed to be stuck in some kind of “Southern gentlemen” cliché from stories set in the Old South. You know the type – he wears a wide planter’s hat, while either holding a glass of booze, a cigar or both; while discussing duels or putting down Yankees. This was especially apparent in one of the film’s first scenes at a saloon, inside the famous St. Louis Hotel.

There is also one scene, earlier in the film, that left me scratching my head. It featured Preston Dillard at his bank’s board meeting, discussing the possibility of constructing rail lines through New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. I realize that the other board members’ negative reaction to Pres’ support for the railroad was suppose to be a sign of the South’s backwardness and unwillingness to accept the advancement of technology. But I found this hard to accept. The movie began in 1852. During this period, the state of Louisiana was already expanding the railroad throughout the state. Nor was the South adverse to accept technological advances, as long as its elite profit from it. If the region – especially the Mississippi Valley – was willing to use steamboats to ship their cotton and sugar to the North, why not railroads? One mode of transportation was just as good as the other. And Southern planters certainly had no qualms in using Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin to become the number one producer and exporter of cotton in the first place. So, this scene seemed a bit unreal to me from a historical point-of-view.

I have two other problems with “JEZEBEL” that I consider aesthetic. One of those problems featured the film’s production designs, supervised by Robert Fellows. I had no problems with the production designs for New Orleans’ French Quarter. I had a big problem with the production designs for Julie Marsden’s plantation, Halcyon. At least the exterior designs. In the scene that featured the arrival of Julie’s guests, Halcyon’s front lawn and the exterior designs for the house resembled a large house in a Southern suburb, instead of a plantation house. I did not expect Halcyon’s exteriors to resemble some clichéd Southern manor. But it seemed quite clear to me that Fellows, along with art director Robert M. Haas and the film’s art department did not put much thought in the plantation’s exterior design. Quite frankly, it almost resembled a facade constructed in front of a matte painting, on the Warner Brothers back lot.

I certainly did not have a problem with most of Orry-Kelly’s costumes for the film. But I had a problem with one in particular . . . namely the infamous Olympus Ball “red gown”:

I realize that in the movie, the gown had been originally created for one of New Orleans’ most infamous courtesans. And I did not have a problem with the gown’s full skirt, which accurately reflected the movie’s early 1850s setting. But that bodice . . . seriously? A strapless ballgown in 1852? I do not care if the gown was originally created for a prostitute. No such ballgown existed in the 1850s. The gown’s bodice struck me as pure late 1930s. The ballgown is practically schizophrenic as far as historical accuracy is concerned. And I am surprised that so many film critics and movie fans have failed to realize this.

Surprisingly, there is a good deal to admire in “JEZEBEL” . . . actually a lot. Many critics have compared it unfavorably to “GONE WITH THE WIND”, due to the latter being a historical drama. Somewhat. Well, aside from its use of the New Orleans 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic and the U.S. sectional conflict of the antebellum period in its narrative, “JEZEBEL” is not what I would describe as a historical drama. Which is why I find the movie’s comparison to “GONE WITH THE WIND” rather questionable. Besides, the movie is basically a character study of one Julie Marsden, an orphaned Louisiana belle who also happened to be the owner of a plantation called Halcyon. Screenwriters Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston structured the film’s narrative as a three-act play – which is not surprising considering its literary source. All three segments of the film – “The Dress”, “The Duel” and “The Fever” – served as different stages in Julie’s tenuous relationship with Pres Dillard. But the best I can say about “JEZEBEL” it is a well-balanced mixture of character study, melodrama and a touch of historical drama for good measure. I can honestly say that “JEZEBEL” was not some uneven mixture of genres.

There is something about “JEZEBEL” that I found rather odd. On one level, the whole movie seemed to be about how a willful and over-privileged woman finally received her comeuppance after causing so much chaos and even tragedy in the lives of those close to her. Yes, Julie Marsden was a selfish and rather childish woman who believed the worlds of others – especially Pres Dillard – should revolve around her. After all, it was her petulant reaction to Pres’ refusal to accompany her on a shopping trip that set their break-up in motion. But I must admit that I was surprised to find some aspect of the film’s narrative that questioned the 19th society that demanded Julie remained in her place, as a woman. Yes, she was selfish and childish. But she possessed a bold personality that seemed unfit for conforming to society’s rigid rules. In a way, I could not help but wonder if some of her attempts to do what she wanted had sprung from some kind of frustration at being expected to remaining below the glass ceiling. Surprisingly, one example was the character Preston Dillard. As I had pointed out earlier, “JEZEBEL” featured the usual “happy slaves” clichés in its portrayal of the African-American characters. But it also used the Pres Dillard character to criticize the South’s dependence on slavery. Pres denied more than once of being a follower of abolition. Yet, his criticism of slave labor, his respectful attitude toward slaves like Uncle Cato, his decision to live in the North and his support for technological advances in transportation and an improved sanitation system for New Orleans seemed to hint otherwise.

A better example of the film’s criticism of 19th century Southern society came from the film’s second act, “The Duel”. Yes, I felt contempt at Julie’s efforts to humiliate Pres and his new bride Amy by manipulating her former beau, the hot-headed Buck Cantrell, into goading them. And I also felt disgusted when her manipulations led to a duel between Buck and Pres’ younger brother, Theodore “Ted” Dillard. This proved to be especially ironic due to the close friendship between the pair. But what really disgusted me was not only did Julie eventually realized she had went too far and tried to prevent the duel; both Buck and Ted knew that Julie had manipulated them into that duel and her reason behind her action. Yet, those two morons insisted upon carrying out the duel. For face. I was especially disgusted with Buck and his blind adherence to this “gentleman’s honor” nonsense. Buck and Ted’s insistence upon carrying out their duel, despite knowledge of Julie’s role in it, seemed to be a harsh criticism of a society that encouraged such duels. This is pretty rare for a Hollywood film made before the 1960s, let alone the 1950s.

Despite a few quibbles, I was very impressed by the production and art designs for “JEZEBEL”. Red ballgown aside, I thought Orry-Kelly did an exceptional job with the film’s costumes. The Australian-born designer’s costumes came very close to reflecting the fashions of the early 1850s – not only for women, but also for men. I was also impressed by the production and art designs that also did an excellent job of reflecting the film’s setting – 1852-1853 Louisiana. The exterior designs for the Halcyon plantation may have been a bust, but I cannot say for the other exterior and set designs. This was certainly the case for the exterior designs for the New Orleans French Quarter scenes, as seen in the image below:

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I simply found them exquisite. This artistry was on full display, thanks to the movie’s long opening shot that introduced movie fans to New Orleans circa 1852. And we can thank both director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller for this memorable scene. And this was just the first. Another creative sequence from Wyler, Haller and the film’s art designers featured a montage that introduced movie audiences to the film’s third and final act – the Yellow Jack epidemic.

I did not have a problem with the film’s performances. In general. But as I had stated earlier, I found some of the performances for minor white planters and black slaves a bit over-the-top. One of those over-the-top performances came from Donald Crisp, of all people, who portrayed Dr. Livingstone – Pres Dillard’s mentor. I thought Crisp took the whole Southern gentleman cliche just a bit too far. I was also a bit troubled by Theresa Harris’ portrayal of Julie’s maid, Zette. It seemed a bit too cliched in my opinion and I wish that William Wyler had reined in her performance a bit. Harris had better luck portraying another maid in the 1941 period comedy, “THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS”. There was one more performance that failed to impress me and it came from Margaret Lindsay, who portrayed Pres’ Northern-born wife Amy. How can I say this? Would one consider a limp and underwhelming character like Amy as another literary trope? At least for a story set in the mid-19th century? I could say that Lindsay was a bad actress, but I find this hard to accept, considering her performance in the 1940 melodrama, “THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES”.

Fortunately for “JEZEBEL”, it did feature some very solid performances. Eddie Anderson gave a pretty solid performance as Julie’s competent stable hand, Gros Bat. Matthew “Stymie” Beard struck me as equally solid as his young son, Ti Bat. Spring Byington was amusing as Julie’s slightly snobbish neighbor, Mrs. Kendrick. Margaret Early gave a lively performance as the former’s daughter, Stephanie Kendrick. Henry O’Neill was pretty solid as one of Julie’s guardians, General Theopholus Bogardus. But I did not find him particularly memorable. Lew Payton gave excellent support as Julie’s major domo, Uncle Cato. And Richard Cromwell really impressed me as Pres’ younger brother, the intelligent yet temperamental Ted Dillard. But there were two supporting performances that truly impressed me. One came from George Brent, who I believe gave one of the best performances of his screen career, as the uber-macho Buck Cantrell. One, his grasp of a Lower South accent really impressed me. The actor also managed to convey the glimmer of Buck’s intelligence behind his masculine posturing – something that made the rupture of his friendship with Ted Dillard rather tragic. The other impressive supporting performance came from Fay Bainter, who portrayed Julie’s other guardian, Aunt Belle Massey. Bainter did such an excellent job of conveying the character’s tiring efforts to make Julie conform to society’s rules, especially those for women. Bainter made Belle Massey’s struggles so apparent that when Julie’s manipulations led to the Buck-Ted duel, Bainter gave that infamous “Jezebel” speech with a superb performance that may have sealed her win as Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

I have read a good number of reviews for “JEZEBEL”. And for the likes of me, I cannot understand why Henry Fonda’s portrayal of banker Preston “Pres” Dillard was dismissed as either wooden or weak. I find the contempt toward the character rather mind-boggling. I even came across an article in which the author could not decide which male character was this film’s Rhett Butler – Pres Dillard or Buck Cantrell. Was that why so many had dismissed Fonda’s character? Because he was no Rhett Butler? I hope not. Personally, I found Fonda’s performance spot on as the intelligent, yet beleaguered Pres, who finally decided that he had enough of Julie’s antics. Fonda’s Pres Dillard wooden? I beg to differ. Fonda did an excellent job of conveying Pres’ emotions throughout the film – whether it was his initial passion for Julie, a combination of confusion and exasperation in dealing with Julie’s childishness, his determination to save New Orleans’ citizens in dealing with a potential pandemic, any lingering physical attraction he might feel for Julie following his marriage, and his anger. Like his younger brother, Pres had a temper, but he controlled it through a very intimidating stare that left others unwilling to confront or challenge him. It is a pity that he was never acknowledged with an acting nomination for his performance.

Bette Davis, on the other hand, more than deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the spoiled Julie Marsden. What can I say? She was superb. She would probably be the first to thank William Wyler for his direction of her performance. And perhaps the director deserved some credit for guiding her performance and eliminating some of her bad habits of exaggerated behavior. But Wyler could only do so much. The talent was there – within Davis. She recognized that she had a first-rate director on her hands and did everything she could to give a stellar performance as the bold, yet childish and vindictive Julie. And Davis knocked it out of the ballpark with some of the most subtle and skillful acting of her career.

I realized that I have not discussed the movie’s most famous scene – namely the Olympus Ball. I can see why so many critics and moviegoers were impressed by it. The film’s production manager had scheduled one day for Wyler to shoot it. The director shot it in five days and created a cinematic masterpiece. Each moment was exquisitely detailed – from Julie and Pres’ arrival, the other guests’ reaction to Julie’s dress, Pres’ insistence that the band begin playing, the dance, the manner in which the other guests slowly pulled away from couple . . . I could go on. But what really made this scene for me were Davis and Fonda’s performances. Between Davis expressing Julie’s growing unease and humiliation and Fonda conveying Pres’ intimidation of everyone in the room, it was easy for me to see why these two, along with Wyler, became Hollywood icons.

I cannot deny that “JEZEBEL” had its problems – including some of its production designs, one particular costume, and the inclusion of Southern character stereotypes – especially African-American slaves. But . . . I also cannot deny that when push comes to shove, “JEZEBEL” is a well-written melodrama and a character study of a complex woman. The movie greatly benefited from a pretty damn good script written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston; an excellent cast led by Oscar winner Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; and superb direction from the likes of William Wyler. I never understood why “JEZEBEL” had to exist within the shadows of “GONE WITH THE WIND”. It is more than capable of standing on its own merits.

 

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1940s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1940s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1940s

1. “Homefront” (1991-1993) – Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick created this award-winning series about the residents of a small Ohio town in post-World War II.

2. “Mob City” (2013) – Jon Bernthal starred in this six-part limited series that was inspired by John Buntin’s book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”. Co-starring Alexa Davalos and Milo Ventimiglia, the series was created by Frank Darabont.

3. “Agent Carter” (2015-2016) – Hayley Atwell starred as Margaret “Peggy” Carter, an agent with the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) in the post-World War II Manhattan. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the MCU series co-starred James D’Arcy and Enver Gjokaj.

4a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

4b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

5. “Manhattan” (2014-2015) – Sam Shaw created this series about the creation of the first two atomic bombs at Los Alamitos, New Mexico. The series starred John Benjamin Hickey.

6. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The seven-part miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent.

7. “Pearl” (1978) – Stirling Silliphant wrote this three-part miniseries about a group of men and women who experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Angie Dickinson, Robert Wagner, Lesley-Ann Warren and Dennis Weaver starred.

8. “The Jewel in the Crown” (1984) – The ITV aired this award winning television adaptation of Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet”novels (1965–75) about the end of the British Raj in India. The fourteen-part miniseries starred Art Malik, Geraldine James, Charles Dance and Tim Pigott-Smith.

9. “Foyle’s War” (2002-2015) – Anthony Horowitz created this television crime drama about a British police detective during World War II. The series starred Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell.

10. “RKO 281” (1999) – Liev Schreiber starred as Orson Welles in this 1999 television adaptation of 1996 documentary called “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”. The television movie also starred John Malkovich, Roy Schneider, James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith.

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.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

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“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

Considering the popularity of the Brontë sisters, it is not surprising that there have been considerable movie, stage and television adaptations of their novels. I discovered there have been at least fifteen (15) adaptations of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights”

I might as well be frank . . . I am not a major fan of the novel. I never have been. I do not dislike it, but I have always preferred the famous novels of the author’s two sisters – namely “Jane Eyre” (1847) by Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. For some reason, “Wuthering Heights” depresses the hell out of me. I have nothing against works of fiction laced with tragedy. But the heavy barrage of emotional and physical abuse, revenge, and over-the-top passion has always seemed a bit too much for me. Due to my less-than-enthusiastic regard for Ms. Brontë’s novel, I have always been reluctant to watch any of the television or movie adaptations, with the exception of one – the 1939 movie produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Directed by William Wyler, and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” told the story of the passionate and doomed love story between one Catherine Earnshaw, the daughter of a Yorkshire landowner and an orphaned Gypsy boy named Heathcliff. The story opens with Mr. Earnshaw introducing Heathcliff to his family – Cathy and her brother, Hindley – at Wuthering Heights. While Cathy immediately befriends Heathcliff, Hindley becomes jealous of his father and sister’s high regard of the newcomer. Heathcliff’s pleasant life with the Earnshaw family ends when Mr. Earnshaw dies and a resentful Hindley forces him to become one of the family’s servants.

Despite Heathcliff’s new status within the Earnshaw family, his close relationship with Cathy remains close. Some eight to ten years later, the now adult pair have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Penniston’s Crag. One night, Cathy and Heathcliff are out when they discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at the Grange. After climbing the garden wall, Cathy is attacked by a dog. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and Heathcliff is ordered to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes close with Edgar Linton and entranced by his wealth and glamour, while Edgar falls in love with her. When Edgar decides to propose marriage to Cathy, his action leads to a major fallout between Cathy and Heathcliff, the latter’s departure for United States, his return, jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy.

As far as I know, the 1939 film eliminated the second half of Brontë’s novel that centered on the generation featuring Heathcliff and Cathy’s children. This elimination has led many fans of the novel to dismiss this version as a poor adaptation. Well, to each his own. I have never read Brontë’s novel. And this is probably why I have such difficulty in dismissing “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” as unworthy of the novel. The only way I can judge the movie is on its own merits. And quite frankly, I believe it is one of the better costume dramas to be released during Hollywood’s Studio Era.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn assigned his top director, William Wyler, to helm the movie. And Wyler did a superb job. Thanks to his direction, “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” turned out to be an atmospheric and well paced movie filled with superb performances by the cast. Wyler utilized the talents of cinematographer Gregg Toland, along with art designers James Basevi and Alexander Toluboff to re-create the novel’s setting – the brooding Yorkshire moors with exquisite details.

The movie’s most controversial aspect turned out to be Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s screenplay. Many present-day critics believe that the two screenwriters took the bite out of Brontë’s novel by romanticizing Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship. Literary critic John Sutherland accused Wyler, Hecht and MacArthur of portraying Cathy as a more passive character, willing to accept Heathcliff’s abuse. Personally, I cannot help but wonder how he came to this conclusion. My recent viewing of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” recalls a capricious and manipulative Cathy unable to hold back her scorn of Heathcliff in the face of the Lintons’ wealth and glamour; and a Cathy more than determined to prevent Heathcliff and Isabella Linton’s marriage. Not once do I recall a passive Cathy willing to accept abuse from Heathcliff.

Other critics of the movie have also accused Wyler and the two screenwriters of robbing Heathcliff the opportunity to seek revenge against Cathy and the Linton family by deleting the second half of the novel. These same critics seemed to have forgotten that a good deal of the movie’s second half focused not only on Heathcliff’s return to England, but also his efforts to get revenge on both the Earnshaw and Linton families. He did this by acquiring Wuthering Heights from an increasingly dissolute Hindley Earnshaw and more importantly, seeking Isabella Linton’s hand for marriage. The latter finally reached its mark as far as Cathy was concerned. The emotional damage from Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella led to Cathy’s death and tragedy. The biggest criticism that emerged from “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Samuel Goldwyn’s decision to set the story in the mid-Victorian era, instead of the novel’s late 18th and early 19th centuries setting. It is believed that Goldwyn made this decision either because he preferred this period in costumes or he was simply trying to save a buck by using old Civil War era costumes. Personally, I could not care less. The novel’s setting was merely accelerated by five to six decades. And since “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” did not utilize any overt historical facts in its plot, I see no reason to get upset over the matter.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” went into production as a vehicle for actress Merle Oberon, who was a contract player at Goldwyn Studios. When Laurence Olivier, her co-star from 1938’s “THE DIVORCE OF LADY X”, was cast as Heathcliff, he campaigned for lover Vivian Leigh to replace Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier’s efforts failed and Oberon kept her job. Many critics believe that Leigh would have done a better job. I refuse to accept or reject that belief. However, I was very impressed by Oberon’s performance. She did an excellent job in capturing Cathy’s capricious and shallow nature. Although Oberon had a few moments of hammy acting, she was not as guilty of this as two of her co-stars. I find it rather disappointing that she failed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Her scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald (in which Cathy tries to dampen Isabella’s interest in Heathcliff) and the famous soliloquy that ended with Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” declaration should have earned her a nomination.

Laurence Olivier made his Hollywood debut in the role of the Gypsy orphan-turned-future owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff. Olivier harbored a low opinion of Hollywood and screen acting in general. But Wyler’s exhausting style of directing and tutelage enabled Olivier to drop his penchant for stage theatrics and perform for the camera. Mind you, I do not believe Wyler was not completely successful with Olivier. The actor still managed to display hints of hammy acting in his performance. And he did not seem that successful in his portrayal of a Heathcliff in his late teens or early twenties, in compare to Oberon, who seemed successful in portraying Cathy in that same age group. Regardless, Olivier gave a first-rate performance, and managed to earn the first of his ten Academy Award nominations.

Another performer who earned an Academy Award nomination was Geraldine Fitzgerald, for her performance as Isabella Linton. I cannot deny that she deserved the nomination. Fitzgerald gave a memorable performance as the passionate, naive and outgoing Isabella, who found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man that harbored no love for her. However, I believe that like Olivier, she was guilty of a few moments of histronic acting. I could never accuse David Niven of such a thing. The actor gave a solid performance as the quietly loving, yet privileged Edgar Linton. Flora Robson was superb as the story’s narrator and Cathy Earnshaw’s maid, Ellen Dean. And both Niven and Robson proved to be the production’s backbone by being the only cast members that managed to refrain from any histronic acting altogether. I can also say the same about Hugh Williams’ portrayal of the embittered and dissolute Hindley Earnshaw. Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway and Miles Mander also gave fine support.

I realize that “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” will never be a favorite of the fans of Brontë’s novel. But as a movie fan, I cannot look down at this production. Thanks to William Wyler’s direction, Gregg Toland’s photography, solid adaptation by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and superb acting from a cast led by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; it is quite easy to see why it is considered as one of the best examples of Old Hollywood during one of its best years – 1939. I guess I will always be a fan.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

“HOMEFRONT” Retrospect: (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.”

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“HOMEFRONT” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.”

There are only a handful of television shows that I am very emotional about. There are only a handful that I consider to be among the best I have ever seen on the small screen. One of them happened to be the 1991-1993 ABC series, “HOMEFRONT”. Not only do I view it as one of the few television series that turned out to be consistently first-rate from beginning to end, it also has one of the best pilot episodes I have ever seen.

“HOMEFRONT” followed the lives and experiences of a handful of citizens in the fictional town in Ohio, right after the end of World War II. In fact, its pilot episode, (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.” picks up not long after the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender. Army war veterans Hank Metcalf and Charles “Charlie” Hailey are in New York City, awaiting a train to take them home to River Run, Ohio. Hank is unaware that his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Brewer, has been dating his younger brother Jeff, while he was overseas. And Charlie has an unpleasant surprise for his longtime girlfriend and fiancée, Ginger Szabo – he has married a British woman named Caroline. Other surprises loomed for some of the citizens of River Run. Hank’s sister, Linda, had been dating his and Charlie’s friend, Mike Sloan, before war. Yet, unbeknownst to her, he has married an Italian woman named Gina, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust. Both Linda and her mother, Anne Metcalf, employees at Sloan Industries during the war, were unceremoniously fired with other women employees to make room for returning male veterans. And the Sloans’ chauffeur and housekeeper, Abe and Gloria Davis, receive a surprise in the return of their son Robert from the war. They are even further surprised by his embittered attitude toward the racism he had encountered in the Army and that a job as janitor awaits him at the Sloans’ factory.

I really do not know what to say about “S.N.A.F.U.”. I had never paid much attention to it, when I last saw “HOMEFRONT” on TVLAND, during the summer of 2000. After my recent viewing of the episode, I cannot understand how I could have ever ignored it in the first place. Not only is “S.N.A.F.U.” an outstanding episode, I now realize it is one of the best in the series. Is it the best? I have no idea. I would have to become reacquainted with the other forty-one episodes. I will say this for “S.N.A.F.U.” – the screenplay written by Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick could easily compete with the 1946 movie, “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES” in regard to a narrative about World War II U.S. servicemen returning home. Not surprising, Latham and Lechowick’s transcript won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Long Form in Television.

In a way, I can see why this episode strongly reminded me of “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. For an episode that mainly focused on the return of River Run’s U.S. servicemen, it seemed filled with a good deal of bitterness, despair and a surprising tragedy. Discrimination seemed prevalent in this episode. The Metcalf women – Anne and her daughter Linda – lost their wartime jobs at the Sloan Industries because owner Michael Sloan decided women were no longer needed as employees, due to the war’s end. On the other hand, the episode revealed Robert Davis’ bitterness over the racism he encountered in the U.S. Army. This bitterness carried over when he discovered that the promised job at Sloan Industries turned out to be a janitor. “S.N.A.F.U.”featured one interesting scene regarding both the racism and sexism faced by some of the characters. In one scene, while office manager Sam Schenkkan fires Linda, he hires Robert for the janitor job. The emotional response expressed by both Robert and Linda proved to be very interesting. Bigotry against foreigners and anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in a story line that featured the Sloans’ discovery that their only son, Michael Sloan Jr., had married an Italian-Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor named Gina. Most of the episode featured the couple trying to find a way to annul their son’s marriage before his return.

Romance certainly proved to be a problem in “S.N.A.F.U.”. Both Linda and her best friend, Ginger Szabo, expected to resume their romances with respective boyfriends upon their return from the war. Linda, who was in love with Mike Jr., learned about his marriage to Gina, upon the latter’s arrival to Ohio. And Ginger, who had been engaged to her longtime boyfriend Charlie Hailey, discovered he had married a young British woman named Caroline, while stationed overseas. And Caroline, as this episode later revealed, will prove to be a handful throughout the series’ run. Thwarted romance also struck another member of the Metcalf family. While Anne Metcalf’s oldest offspring, Hank, was fighting in Europe during the war; his younger brother Jeff got caught up in an unexpected romance with Hank’s girlfriend and fiancée, Sarah Brewer. Both Jeff and Sarah had decided she would break her engagement with Hank, so that both could declare their love for one another. However, Jeff found himself at the losing end of the lollipop when Sarah decided to remain with Hank. I have seen my share of movies about war veterans returning home. But I have never come across so much aborted romances and betrayal in one production in my life. And yet . . . Latham and Lechowick, along with the actors and actresses who portrayed these characters, made all of this romantic entanglements and betrayals seem emotionally true, instead of the usual second-rate melodrama.

If I must be honest, I believe “S.N.A.F.U.” is a prime example of what made “HOMEFRONT” one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Like the other 41 episodes that followed, “S.N.A.F.U.” explored the post-World War II world with a skillful mixture of drama, melodrama, romance, history, comedy and some action. To be honest, no action was featured in “S.N.A.F.U.”. But it did manifest in a few episodes during the series’ two-year run. I also have to comment on Latham and Lechowick’s exploration of racism, sexism, class and other issues in such a seamless, yet believable manner. I can only think of one or two other television shows that managed to achieve this . . . even to this day. And the more I realize this, I cannot help but wonder if most of today’s television producers are incapable of dealing with more than one or two particular issues. If this is true, then “HOMEFRONT”managed to achieve something rare that may never happen again.

The excellent writing featured in “S.N.A.F.U.” could have come to nothing without the first-rate cast for this show. I tried to think of a performance that seemed out of place or just plain ineffective. But I could not. Everyone gave it their all, including the likes of Kyle Chandler, Tammy Lauren, Dick Anthony Williams, David Newsome, Ken Jenkins, Harry O’Reilly and Hattie Winston. But there were a handful of performances that especially impressed me. I once read that when A.B.C. eventually cancelled “HOMEFRONT”after two seasons, Mimi Kennedy had broke into tears in the privacy of her dressing room. If this is true, I can understand why. I think that the role of Ruth Sloan, the haughty and blunt-speaking wife of industrialist Michael Sloan Sr. may have been the best in her career. I have always been amazed at how she conveyed both the unpleasant and sympathetic aspects of Ruth. I also enjoyed Sterling Macer’s performance as the embittered Robert Davis – especially in this episode. There is one scene in which the returning veteran is being welcomed home by his happy mother, grandmother and their friends, while he sits at the kitchen table trying . . . and failing to share their happiness. With very few words and his eyes, Macer skillfully conveyed Robert’s unhappy memories of the Army and his eventual inability to share his family’s happiness over his return.

Another performance that caught my attention came from Jessica Steen, who portrayed Linda Metcalf – middle child and only daughter of Anne Metcalf. Looking back on it, I believe Steen had a difficult job in this episode. Her emotions seemed to be all over the place, due to what she had experienced in “S.N.A.F.U.” – brother Hank’s return, anticipating Mike Sloan Jr.’s return, discovering Mike’s marriage to an Italian war refugee, dealing with best friend Ginger Szabo’s anger over Charlie Bailey and losing her job. And yet . . . she kept it all together with some first-rate acting skills. I was impressed by one last performance and it came from Sammi Davis (1987’s “HOPE AND GLORY”) as Charlie Bailey’s war bride, Caroline Bailey. Caroline has never been a popular character with the show’s fans. Many found her selfish and manipulative. I had also felt the same. But . . . I also recalled that Caroline was such an interesting character, thanks to Davis’ excellent performance. And at times, I also found her likable. I certainly found her very likable in “S.N.A.F.U.”. The scheming manipulator revealed her claws in her effort to regain the down payment Charlie had given to a landlord, who welshed on them and I cheered. I also understood her anger and confusion from Ginger’s hostile attitude toward her, especially since she obviously had no idea why Ginger was being rude.

What else can I say about “S.N.A.F.U.”? That it was a superb premiere for a first-rate series like “HOMEFRONT”? I have noticed that most television shows with excellent pilot episodes tend to go downhill by the end of the first season or the beginning of the second. Fortunately, this never happened with “HOMEFRONT”. Like “S.N.A.F.U.”, it remained an excellent piece of television entertainment throughout its two-year run. And it is a damn pity that the entire series has not been released on DVD.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (2009) Review

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (2009) Review

I have no idea how many times Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights” was adapted for the movie or television screens. I do know that I have seen at least three versions of the novel. Although the 2009 television adaptation is not the latest to have been made, it is the most recent I have seen.

The beginning of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” veers away from Brontë’s novel in two ways. One, the television production is set forty years later than the novel. Instead of beginning at the turn of the 19th century, this movie or miniseries begins in the early 1840s before it jumps back thirty years. And two, the character of Mr. Lockwood, who appeared in both Brontë’s novel and William Wyler’s 1939 version, did not make an appearance in this production. The novel and the 1939 film used Earnshaw housekeeper Nelly Dean’s recollections to Lockwood as a flashback device. This production also uses Nelly as a flashback device, only she ends up revealing her memories to Cathy Linton, the daughter of Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw . . . and Heathcliff’s new daughter-in-law.

Do not get me wrong. I personally had no problems with these changes. With or without the Lockwood character, Nelly Dean is used as a flashback. There were other changes from the novel. Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights and Yorkshire and returned three-and-a-half years later, six months after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar. In the 2009 production, Heathcliff returned on the very day of their wedding. Well . . . I could deal with that. What I found interesting is that screenwriter Don Bowker seemed dismissive of the 1939 film adaptation, claiming that the movie’s screenwriter succeeded because “with classic Hollywood ruthlessness they filleted out the Cathy/Heathcliff story and ditched the rest of the plot. It’s a great film but it does the novel a disservice.” I realize that many fans of Brontë’s novel would probably agree with him. I do not. Wyler’s film may not have been as faithful as this production, but I do not accept Bowker’s view that it “filleted out” the Catherine/Heathcliff story or did the novel any disservice. This version included the second generation story arc and to be quite honest, I was not that impressed.

There were some problems I had with this production. I also found myself slightly confused by the passage of time between Heathcliff’s departure and his return. I also felt equally confused by the passage of time between young Cathy’s first meeting with Heathcliff and her marriage to the latter’s son, Linton. The Nelly Dean character barely seemed to age. And once the miniseries or movie refocused upon the second generation, the story seemed to rush toward the end. Both Bowker and director Coky Giedroyc seemed reluctant to fully explore Heathcliff’s relationships with his son Linton, his daughter-in-law Cathy and his ward Hareton. I could probably say the same about the friendship and developing romance between the younger Cathy and Hareton.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” is a visually charming production. But I can honestly say that it did not blow my mind. There was nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable about the production staff’s work, whether it was Ulf Brantås’ photography, Grenville Horner’s production designs or Fleur Whitlock’s art direction. If one were to ask my opinion on the miniseries’ score, I could not give an answer, simply because I did not find it memorable. The most noteworthy aspect of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, aside from its writing, direction and the cast is Fleur Whitlock’s costume designs. I admire the way she made every effort to adhere to early 19th fashion from the Regency decade to the beginning of the Victorian era.

I had very little problems with the cast. Tom Hardy – more or less- gave a fine performance as the brooding Heathcliff. He certainly did an excellent job of carrying the production. My only complaint is that once his Heathcliff returned to Wuthering Heights as a wealthy man, there were times when he seemed to portray his character as a comic book super villain. His later performance as Heathcliff brought back negative reminders of his performance as Bane in the most recent Batman movie, “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I was also impressed by Charlotte Riley’s portrayal of Catherine Earnshaw, the emotional and vibrant young woman who attracted the love of both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Riley gave a very skillful and intelligent performance. I only wish that she had not rushed into exposing Catherine’s jealousy of Heathcliff’s romance with her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton. Another remarkable aspect of Riley’s performance is that she managed to generate chemistry with both Hardy and her other leading man, Andrew Lincoln. Speaking of Lincoln, I felt he gave the best performance in this production. There were no signs of hamminess or badly-timed pacing. More importantly, he did an excellent job of balancing Edgar’s passionate nature and rigid adherence to proper behavior.

I have no complaints regarding the supporting cast. Sarah Lancashire was first-rate as the Earnshaws’ housekeeper, Nelly Dean. I wish she had a stronger presence in the production, but I am more inclined to blame the director and screenwriter. Burn Gorman did an excellent job of balancing Hindley Earnshaw’s jealous behavior and fervent desire for his father’s love and attention. Rosalind Halstead gave a steady performance as Edgar’s sister and Heathcliff’s wife, Isabella Linton. However, I must admit that I was particularly impressed by one scene in which her character discovers the true nature of Heathcliff’s feelings for her. As for the rest of the cast – all gave solid and competent performances, especially Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Earnshaw and Rebecca Night as Cathy Linton.

Overall, I enjoyed “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. Mind you, I believe it had its flaws. And I could never regard it superior to the 1939 movie, despite being slightly more faithful. But I would certainly have no troubles re-watching for years to come, thanks to director Coky Giedroyc and a cast led by Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“THE BIG COUNTRY” (1958) Review

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“THE BIG COUNTRY” (1958) Review

William Wyler and Gregory Peck first worked together in the 1953 comedy classic, “ROMAN HOLIDAY”. The director and the actor became close friends and spent a few years trying to find the right property for which they could co-produce and work on together. Peck finally came across a magazine story, which eventually transformed to the movie screen as 1958’s “THE BIG COUNTRY”

The magazine story in question happened to be the 1957 Saturday Evening Post serialized article called “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. Written by future Matt Helm author, Donald Hamilton; the story was basically about a Baltimore sea captain, who travels to Texas to claim his bride, the daughter of a wealthy rancher; and finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between his future father-in-law and less wealthy rancher.

“THE BIG COUNTRY” began with the arrival of sea captain Jim McKay to a small, dusty town in western Texas to join his fiancée Patricia Terrill at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Henry Terrill. Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey, the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. Patricia’s friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon, owns the “Big Muddy”, a large ranch with a vital water supply. Although she cannot afford to hire men to operate her ranch, Julie is caught in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud, as she has been allowing both Terrill and Hannassey to use her water for their cattle, while both ranchers long to buy her land in order to put the other man out of business. McKay refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing to stop Hannassey’s trouble-making son Buck from harassing him during his and Patricia’s ride to the Terrill ranch; and he declines a challenge by Terrill’s foreman, Steve Leech, to ride an unruly horse. When McKay decides to purchase Julie’s ranch and maintain her promise to provide water for the two rivals, matters eventually escalate into romantic problems and more violence between Terrill and Hannassey.

During his first three years as a director, William Wyler worked only on Westerns. Then between 1929 and 1940, he directed two Westerns – “HELL’S HEROES” (1930) and “THE WESTERNER” (1940). Wyler waited another seventeen-to-eighteen years before he worked on his final Western, 1958’s “THE BIG COUNTRY”. Although many movie fans seemed to like “THE BIG COUNTRY”, very few seemed to regard it as one of his finest films. I cannot decide whether or not I would view it as one of his best films. But if I must be honest, I do consider it as one of my favorite Wyler movies . . . even if my opinion of it has declined slightly over the years.

My recent viewing of “THE BIG COUNTRY” made me realize that it might be at least 40 minutes too long. A tight story about an Easterner getting caught in the middle of a land feud did not seem epic enough for a movie with a running time of 165 minutes. After he had finished production on the film, Wyler rushed into pre-production for his next film,“BEN-HUR”. Co-producer and star Gregory Peck had feuded with him over a scene that he felt needed some serious editing. tried to convince him to finish “THE BIG COUNTRY” with some much needed editing – a feud that lasted two years. And their feud was not helped by Wyler’s preoccupation with “BEN-HUR”. In the end, I believe that Peck had a right to be concerned. I feel that the movie needed a good deal of editing. Wyler wasted a good deal of film on Buck Hannassey and his two brothers’ hazing of Jim McKay during the latter and Patricia Terrill’s ride to her father’s ranch. The movie also wasted film on McKay’s self-challenge to ride the very horse that Steve Leech had earlier dared him to ride – Old Thunder. That scene took too damn long. Wyler also seemed enraptured over the eastern California and western Arizona landscape that served as Texas in the movie. Perhaps he became too enraptured. In the end, it seemed as if Wyler’s interest in Western culture and landscape had almost spiraled out of control. Even worse, “THE BIG COUNTRY” almost became a series of far shots to indicate the size of the movie and its setting.

Despite its flaws, “THE BIG COUNTRY” still remains a big favorite of mine. Robert Wilder, along with Jessamyn West, James R. Webb and Sy Bartlett did a first-rate job in adapting Hamilton’s story. Their efforts, along with Wyler’s direction, produced what I believe turned out to be one of the most unique Westerns I have ever seen. What I enjoyed about “THE BIG COUNTRY” was that it took the public’s image of what a Western – whether made in Hollywood or published in novels and magazines – and turned it on its head. Rarely one would find a Western in which its hero is a mild-mannered personality with the guts to reject the prevailing ideal of a Western man. The 1939 movie “DESTRY RIDES AGAIN” came close to it, but its quiet hero was an expert gunman, despite his “pacifist” ways. Even the Jim McKay eventually gives in to his own aggression, due to his developing feelings toward his fiancee’s best friend, Julie Maragon. But he also ends up learning a good deal about himself, thanks to Rufus Hannassey. I found it interesting that movie made a big deal over an eventual conflict between Terrill and Hannassey’s two “lieutenants” – Terrill’s foreman Steve Leech and Hannassey’s oldest son Buck. And yet, both ended up clashing with McKay over two women – Pat Terrill and Julie. And their clashes with Jim ended with ironic twists one rarely or never finds in many other Westerns.

“THE BIG COUNTRY” featured an excellent cast led by the always remarkable Gregory Peck. I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate portrayal of a character many might find uninteresting. I think that Peck’s Jim McKay would not have been that interesting in a modern-day tale. But as a character that upset the notions of manhood in the West . . . he was perfect for this story. As I had stated earlier, even McKay could not contain his emotions any longer. And Peck did a fine job in slowly revealing his character’s contained emotions – whether it was his dislike of Steve Leech, who constantly taunted him out of jealousy toward his engagement to Patricia; his frustrated anger at both Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey’s unwillingness to end their destructive feud; or his anger at Buck Hannassey, whom he viewed as a threat to a woman he eventually grew to love, namely Julie. Not surprisingly, Peck did an excellent job in holding this movie together.

But there were other performances that also caught my eye. The always dependable Jean Simmons gave a charming and solid performance as schoolmarm Julie Maragon. Charles Bickford, who had first worked with Wyler in “HELL’S HEROES”, did a fine job in revealing Henry Terrill’s malice and ego behind a dignified facade. “THE BIG COUNTRY”proved to be the last movie for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya (known for a famous line from the 1948 movie,“THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE”. What I enjoyed about Bedoya’s portrayal of Terrill ranch hand Ramón Guiteras was his ability to reveal his character’s wisdom behind the cliché of the childlike immigrant. I would go even further to state that Bedoya’s Ramón proved to be the wisest character in the story.

Chuck Connors is finally receiving some recognition of his performance as the blowhard Buck Hannassey and I say that it is about time. Most people tend to dismiss his character as a one-note bully . . . a typical cliché of what one might find in a Western. But thanks to Wyler’s direction and Connors’ acting skills, the latter also revealed the pathetic boy who had more or less longed for the love and respect from a parent who never liked him and who may have bullied him. Charlton Heston’s Steve Leech also proved to be a surprise. His character also started out as another cliché – the solid and virile Western cowboy. Thanks to Heston’s skillful performance, he developed Steve into a mature man who began to question the West’s code regarding manhood and who realized that the man he admired – Henry Terrill – may not have been as admirable as he had perceived for so long. One of Heston’s best moments on the screen was his quiet and determined effort to stop Terrill from the leading their cowboys into an ambush set up Hannassey in Blanco Canyon.

I was surprised to realize that the Patricia Terrill character, portrayed by Carroll Baker, struck me as more of a contrast to Buck Hannassey than Steve Leech. Whereas Buck longs for his father’s respect and admiration, Patricia has her father’s love in spades. Perhaps too much of it. Buck has spent most of his life being bullied by Hannassey. Patricia has spent most of her life being spoiled. Buck reacts with violence or bullying tactics when he does not get his way. Patricia resorts to temper tantrums. And she turns out to be just as childish and pathetic. I was shocked to learn that Baker now possesses a reputation for being a sex symbol. It seemed the public has tacked this reputation on her, based upon a handful of movies she appeared in the 1960s. I find this criminal, for it is plain to me that she was a very talented actress, who did a superb job in capturing the spoiled and childish nature of Pat Terrill. I feel she gave one of the best performances in the movie. But the one cast member who walked away with an award for his performance was singer-actor Burl Ives, who portrayed Henry Terrill’s rival, the seemingly brutish and sharp-tongued Rufus Hannassey. I might as well say it . . . he deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Some have claimed that he actually won for his performance in another movie, “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF”. Others have claimed that he won for his performances in both movies. I have never seen “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF”. But I cannot deny that he was SUPERB in “THE BIG COUNTRY”. Ives had all of the best lines and he did wonders with it . . . especially in his scenes with Chuck Connors. His Hannassey seemed to be, without a doubt, not only the most interesting character in the movie, but also I feel that Ives gave the best performance.

Even though I found some of the movie’s photography excessive and its editing almost non-existent, I still found myself enraptured over cinematographer Franz Planer’s work. He really allowed the eastern California and western Arizona locations to live up to the movie’s title. Without Wyler’s post-production input, Robert Belcher and John Faure’s editing pretty much came up short. However, there was one scene in which their work, along with Wyler’s direction and Planner’s camera, made it one of the most memorable in the movie. I am sure that very few have forgotten that moment in which a silently exasperated Leech changed his mind about following Terrill into Blanco Canyon. This entire sequence was enhanced by the stirring score written by Jerome Moross. Speaking of the composer, Moross received a much deserved Oscar nomination for the movie’s score. Personally, I would have preferred it he had actually won. In my opinion, his score for “THE BIG COUNTRY” is one of the best ever in Hollywood history.

Is “THE BIG COUNTRY” one of the best movies ever directed by the legendary William Wyler? I really cannot say. I have seen better movies directed by him. The movie has some series flaws, especially in regard to editing and too many far shots. But thanks to an unusual story, an excellent cast led by Gregory Peck, a superb score by Jerome Moross and some not-too-shabby direction by Wyler, “THE BIG COUNTRY” remains one of my favorite Westerns of all time.

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

 

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

I suspect there might be a good number of movie fans who have seen William Wyler’s 1949 movie, ”THE HEIRESS”. This film, which led to a second Academy Award for actress Olivia DeHavilland, was based upon both Henry James’ 1880 novel, ”Washington Square”, and the 1947 stage play of the same title. In 1997, another version of James’ novella appeared on the movie screens. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. 

Anyone familiar with James’ tale should know that it told the story of one Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward daughter of the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper in antebellum Manhattan, who falls in love with a penniless, yet handsome young man named Morris Townsend against her father’s wishes. If one thinks about it, the plot sounds like a typical costumed weeper in which a pair of young lovers kept apart from outside forces – in this case, a disapproving parent. But James had added a few twists to make this story. One, the story kept many in the dark on whether the penniless Morris actually loved Catherine. Two, Dr. Sloper not only disapproved of Morris, but also harbored deep contempt and resentment toward his daughter’s plain looks and awkward social skills. Her crimes? Catherine’s birth had led to the death of his beloved wife. And his daughter failed to inherit her mother’s beauty and style. After a great of psychological warfare between Catherine, Dr. Sloper, Morris and Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia Penniman, the story ended on a surprising note for those who have never read the novel or seen any of the film or stage versions. Those familiar with the tale at least know that it ended on a note of personal triumph for the heroine.

Many movie fans and critics seemed incline to dismiss ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” as a poor remake of the 1949 film. I will not deny that in many respects, ”THE HEIRESS” is superior to ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. However, I would not be inclined to dismiss the 1997 film as a failure. It still turned out to be a pretty damn good adaptation of James’ novel. In fact, it turned out to be a lot better than I had expected.

Jennifer Jason Leigh did an excellent job of portraying the shy and socially awkward Catherine Sloper. Even better, she managed to develop Catherine’s character from a shy woman to one who became more assured with herself. However, I do have one small quibble regarding Leigh’s performance. She had a tendency to indulge in unnecessary mannerisms that would rival both Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

Maggie Smith gave an illuminating performance as Catherine’s silly and romantically childish aunt, Lavinia Sloper Penniman. I found myself very impressed by Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of Catherine’s handsome and charming suitor, Morris Townsend. The actor struck a perfect balance of charm, impatience and ambiguity. And his verbal battles with Albert Finney’s character left me spellbound. Judith Ivey gave an intelligent performance as Catherine’s other aunt, the sensible and clever Elizabeth Sloper Almond. I especially enjoyed one scene that featured a debate between Catherine’s father and Aunt Elizabeth over her relationship with Morris.

But in my opinion, Albert Finney gave the best performance in the movie as Catherine’s aloof and slightly arrogant father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The interesting thing about Finney’s performance was that he able expressed Dr. Sloper’s concern he felt over the possibility of Catherine becoming the victim of a fortune hunter. At the same time, Finney perfectly balanced Sloper’s concern with the character’s lack of affection or warmth toward his daughter. My favorite scene with Finney featured an expression of disbelief on his face, as his character noticed Lavinia’s enthrallment over Catherine and Morris’ musical duet.

If there is one aspect of ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” that impressed me more than Wyler’s 1949 adaptation was Allan Starski’s production designs. Under Holland’s direction, Starski worked effectively with costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Jerzy Zielinski’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Pascal Charpentier to transport moviegoers back to antebellum New York City. In fact, the movie’s late 1840s setting struck me as superior to that shown in the 1949 movie. And because of this, the movie managed to avoid the feeling of a filmed play.

Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle’s adaptation of James’ novel seemed a lot closer to the original source than the earlier version. At least the movie’s last twenty minutes adhered closer to the novel. I suspect that the movie’s first ten to fifteen minutes – which focused upon an embarrassing childhood incident regarding Catherine and her father’s birthday party – had been the screenwriter’s invention. Personally, I found this sequence rather unnecessary. Doyle could have easily used brief dialogue to reveal the origin of Dr. Sloper’s coldness toward Catherine. But in the end, Doyle’s screenplay basically followed James’ novel.

But after watching the movie’s last twenty minutes, I found myself wishing that Doyle and Holland had followed Wyler’s adaptation and the 1947 stage play. The movie nearly fell apart in the last twenty minutes, thanks to a decision on Holland’s part. Most of the dramatic moments in ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” appeared in the last half hour – Catherine’s realization of her father’s dislike, Morris’ rejection of her after discovering her decision to endanger her inheritance, Dr. Sloper’s death, the reading of his will and Morris’ second attempt to woo Catherine. Out of all these scenes, only Catherine’s reaction to her father’s will generated any real on-screen dramatics. All of the other moments were performed with a subtlety that robbed filmgoers of any real drama. The fact that I could barely stay awake during Catherine’s final rejection of Morris told me that Holland made a serious mistake in guiding her cast to portray these scenes in a realistic manner. There is a time for realism and there is a time for dramatic flair. And in my opinion, those final scenes in the last half hour demanded dramatic flair.

Despite my disappointments in the movie’s last half hour, I must admit that I managed to enjoy ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. It may not have been just as good as or superior to 1949’s ”THE HEIRESS”. But I believe that it still turned out to be a pretty damn good movie.