Saturday, December 25, 2010

REBECCA (1940)

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REBECCA (Director: Alfred Hitchcock) (Screenplay: Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier).

The best picture winner in 1940 was REBECCA, the second straight win for producer David O Selznick, and, more importantly, the first Hollywood film for director Alfred Hitchcock, who was about to begin an amazing run of both popular and critically acclaimed films there, eventually becoming known as the "master of suspense".  Amazingly, REBECCA is his only film to ever win best picture(even more amazing, he himself never won for best director).  While it is a polished and classy production, well made and well acted, I think it pales in comparison to many of his later classics, not to mention some of his earlier English films.
Hitchcock began his illustrious career in the British film industry in the 1920's at the Gainsborough Pictures studio; interestingly, one of his first films, 1927's THE LODGER, featured a plot about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder, a premise that he would rework and rework time and again for the next fifty years!  Although his British films are uneven, (he himself referred to 1934's WALTZES FROM VIENNA as "the lowest ebb of my career".) he quickly reached a high level of prominence as he made excellent thrillers like 1935's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, and 1938's THE LADY VANISHES.  Inevitably, Hollywood came to call, and he signed a seven year contract with Selznick.  The two had an often adversarial relationship, with Selznick's micromanaging memos angering Hitchcock to the point where he edited the film in camera, shooting scenes in a manner in which they could only possibly be edited together the way he wanted them to be.
He may have been the master of suspense, but with REBECCA  Hitchcock made more of a romantic drama, with some ghost story elements, rather than a suspense film.  In it, Joan Fontaine plays a young woman (who's first name is never mentioned), who, while vacationing as a paid companion to an older woman, meets Maxim De Winter(Laurence Olivier), a good looking, wealthy middle aged man; they quickly fall in love and marry, and all seems well until they return to his palatial estate of Manderlay, where the memory of his deceased first wife, Rebecca, is inescapable, and threatens to wreck their marriage.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier

Fontaine, who was not a well known actress at the time,  is excellent as the young bride in over her head; she is immediately likable and garners our sympathy easily, which is important since most of the film is told from her point of view.  Olivier is also good, managing to be both romantic and charming in the first part of the film, and withdrawn and mysterious in the second, and he does what he can with a long, exposition heavy speech that he gives late in the film.  But the movie is really stolen by Judith Anderson as the villainous house maid Mrs Danvers,who is obsessed with the memory of Rebecca; with her pale skin, protruding nose, tightly bound hair and single black outfit, Andrerson's Danvers is a truly ghostlike and frightening figure.  I love the way that Anderson gives her voice a flat, cold tone that makes even the most pleasant words sound like a threat.  Her best scene comes when she quietly but forcefully tries to talk Fontaine's character into committing suicide; without overplaying it, she almost makes suicide seem like a logical conclusion for the young bride.  Another interesting element of her character is the implication that her obsession with the dead Rebecca may have more to it than a maid remembering her mistress; the fact that she keeps Rebecca's now empty room exactly the way she liked when she was alive, and that she praises the dead woman's beauty more than once, implies a possible sexual interest.  Hitchcock would return to giving  homosexual leanings to his villains in other films like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and while the fact that it always a villain that is gay makes them homophobic, it also does add some interesting texture to the characters.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson

The early scenes, with the romantic leads meeting and falling for each other, are charming and lively, and Olivier gets to deliver one of the great movie proposals: "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."  The shift in tone to darker drama is effective, one nice touch is the way Hitchcock shoots the Mandalay estate, which looks big and beautiful when the married couple first get there, but gets much darker and more foreboding as the specter of Rebecca's memory is cast over it.  He also pulls off one terrific tracking shot that starts with Fontaine sitting at a dinner table with Olivier for their first meal at Mandlay; the camera slowly pulls back to reveal how enormous the table is and how they are both flanked by servants, until Fontaine herself seems to shrink, effectively illustrating how overwhelmed she is.
Unfortunately, after a strong start, the film's story looses momentum, with too many scenes of the forlorn Fontaine wandering around Manderlay; Hitchcock films rarely sag, but this one does, and other than the aforementioned dinner table shot, and the big fiery conclusion, there are few memorable visuals or camera setups to be found.  Also, like GONE WITH THE WIND from a year before, too many big dramatic moments are revealed in the final third of the film, pushing it into melodrama, and moving the story away from Fontaine's character and her conflict with Mrs Danvers, which is the most interesting part of the story.  Also, the film lacks the dark wit that make so many Hitchcock films a joy to watch, and that are a big part of why they hold up so well decades later.  Indeed, even his little walk on cameo comes at the end and is barely noticeable.

Although it's easy to see why the Academy would give the award to a stately  and well made film like REBECCA, it is not my favorite of the year that also produced Howard Hawks's HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Walt Disney's PINOCCHIO, and Hitchcock's own second release that year, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


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GONE WITH THE WIND (Dir: Victor Fleming) (Screenplay: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)

The best picture winner for 1939 was certainly a no brainer: GONE WITH THE WIND was, from the very moment it began production, destined to become a classic Hollywood epic of enormous proportions, and it was showered with ten Oscars in all(two of them honorary).  It is also no surprise that the film has become so  well remembered and revered, since it truly is a powerful, beautifully filmed example of golden age Hollywood film making, with a cast of thousands, eye popping technicolor, terrific costumes, and a sweeping score by Max Steiner.  It is also, in my opinion, even in its greatness, often uneven.

When the Pulitzer prize winning book of the same name was published by Margarert Mitchell in 1936, Kay Brown, a story editor for producer David O Selznick's studio, Selznick International, instantly saw the novel as a film.  At first he thought it was too long, but eventually he was convinced, and when the book became a runaway best seller, he wound up spending $50,000 for the rights, the highest amount ever paid for a novel up to that point. Its production was then handled with much publicity; literally thousands of actresses auditioned for the plum lead role of Scarlet O'hara before Vivien Leigh was chosen.  Although her  English descent made her far from a Southern belle, and she was not a big star, she turned out to be an inspired choice, and she would win an Oscar for the role.  While there was some talk of casting Erroyl Flynn or Gary Cooper in the role of Rhett Butler, there really was no competition with Clark Gable, who seemed born for the role.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh: Perfect casting

Shooting began with George Cukor in the director's chair, but he was fired after about a month.  Just why he was let go is a matter of some debate; some say that Selznick thought he was moving too slowly.  On the other hand, in his excellent book "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet": The American Talking Film History and Memory 1927-1949" film critic Andrew Sarris said it was because Gable thought that Cukor was focusing the film too much on the female characters, and also that Gable did not want to directed by the openly gay Cukor.  (This accounting of events is confirmed by Patrick McGilligan in A DOUBLE LIFE, his biography of Cukor). Whatever the reason, he was replaced by Victor Fleming, who had directed Gable before in 1932's RED DUST, and who matched Gable's manliness, although the female cast members were not as happy with him as they were with Cukor.  To get the massive film done in seven months of shooting, director Sam Wood also did some uncredited work on it.  The script was also a definite group effort; Sidney Howard may have gotten sole credit (and an Oscar) for it, but there are reports of as many as ten different writers working on it, including Selznick himself.  Indeed, with his constant meddling and decision making, the finished film could be said to be more Selznick's than anybody else's.  The film's final budget was a then enormous 4.2 million dollars, but its success was almost assured from the start, and today many people still consider it to be the biggest money maker ever, when adjusted for inflation.
In the film, the first time we see Scarlet, she's sitting on the porch of Tara, her family's plantation in Georgia, wearing a white hoop skirt and delivering the immortal line, "Fiddle-dee-dee", while being attended to by two young male admirers.  Immediately, she appears self centered and vain, drinking in the attention of the two men and shutting them down when they start to talk of the oncoming war.  She will remain this way throughout the film; really, there are few classic films that revolve around such an unlikable character.  Not only is she vain, she's spiteful, manipulative and impulsive; she marries three times in the film, never out of love, and hates even having to pretend to mourn for her first two husbands.  Nor does she let her marriages stop her from pursuing her true love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), even though he himself is married.  She's not even a good mother to her daughter Bonnie(Cammie King).  It is really a tribute to the excellence of Leigh's performance that the audience can still care about Scarlett and can be moved by her story even as we frown upon her actions.  Leigh always lets us know what Scarlet is thinking, and we can understand her motivations even if we don't condone them.  Certainly, we come to admire her as a survivor; when she returns to Tara after the burning of Atlanta and finds it in ruins, she takes charge and gets the place running again, even if she has to work in the fields herself.  She also bravely shoots a lecherous Union soldier, and famously turns some curtains into a dress to make an impression on Rhett. 
As the roguish Rhett, Gable is perfect, playing up to his macho image as he bravely leads Scarlet out of the burning Atlanta, and later forces himself upon her.  He also shows a more tender side as he becomes a doting father to Bonnie and despairs over his unhappy marriage to Scarlett.
As perfect as the casting of Gable and Leigh are, I find the film's selection of the story's other two main characters to be far less so. Leslie Howard felt that at forty six he was too old to play Ashley Wilkes, and I think he was right.  Even worse, he often seems lifeless and stiff in the role, and he frequently over delivers his lines.  And then there's Olivia de Havilland as the saintly Melanie, a truly dull character who always sees the best in everyone, including Scarlett; in fact she practically fawns over her, despite Scarlett's obvious dislike for her.  Her character is presented as so kindly and  good hearted, that, in one slightly ridiculous moment, she is made to look like the virgin Mary while nursing a wounded soldier.  To be fair to de Havilland, I think her character's blandness derives more from the script (and I presume the novel)than from her own weakness as an actress, and I've enjoyed her in other films like 1949's THE HEIRESS.  In any event, the best thing to be said about the Melanie character is that her inhuman goodness makes the audience identify with Scarlett, who at least is a believable person.

Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havillind: Not so perfect casting

Many jokes have been made over the years about just how Scarlett could pass up handsome Rhett for stuffy Ashley, but obviously what the movie and the novel are driving at is more than mere physical attraction.  Scarlett loves Ashley because he is noble and honorable, and he bravely goes off to fight in the war because he truly believes in the cause; in her mind he is what she deserves.  Rhett, on the other hand, is a notorious scalawag, who's reputation with the ladies is well known before he even meets her.  He also has no interest in the Southern cause in the war, saying that "I believe in Rhett Butler, he's the only cause I know", and during the war he makes a fortune blockcade running instead of fighting.  He is immediately attracted to Scarlett, because he sees in her the same cynical survival instinct that he has, saying to her at one point that they are both "selfish and shrewd".  She continually rebuffs him because she can't quite believe that truth about herself.  A crucial moment in their relationship comes in the latter part of the film; after they are married and have a daughter, Scarlett refuses to sleep with him anymore, worrying that having more children will ruin her figure.  One night Rhett comes home and drunkenly forces himself on her; immediately we cut to her the next morning, lying in bed, smiling, with a look of sexual satisfaction on her face.  For the first time, she is happy with him; clearly she likes his rough animal side. But, when Rhett walks in and apologizes for his behavior the night before, trying to be the gentlemen he thinks she wants, she is immediately cold to him again.  Clearly, this is a woman who does not understand her own desires!  Sadly for her, she will not realize what she truly wants until the film's end, when she vainly tries to stop Rhett from leaving, leading to perhaps the most famous use of a swear word in film history.
The first half of GONE WITH THE WIND is truly remarkable, with unforgettable images, like Scarlett's walk through a sea of wounded Confederate soldiers, and its depiction of the last days of the Confederacy are moving and well done(even if you aren't as sympathetic with the Southern cause as the characters are).  It builds to a remarkable climax of pure spectacle, with Rhett leading Scarlett and Melanie out of the flaming city of Atlanta, followed by a wonderfully written and acted  moment when Rhett returns to join the fallen Confederate army.  Then it tops itself with Scarlett's return to the fallen Tara and her towering delivery of the legendary line about never being hungry again.  I think if the film had ended here, it would completely justify its classic status.  But the second half just doesn't hold up; first of all, I think the Civil War and the fall of the South are just inherently more interesting and dramatic subjects than the postwar reconstruction, and even that part of the story is forgotten once Rhett and Scarlett restore Tara to its past glory; from then on the scope of the film is greatly reduced, and there's nothing left but romantic melodrama.  Even worse, considering the film's almost four hour length, the last half hour of the film feels rushed. In quick succession we see: Scarlett fall down the stairs and have a miscarriage, Bonnie die in a riding accident, Melanie die of an unknown disease, Ashley turn away Scarlett one last time, and, finally, Rhett leave her for good.  Scarlett may not be the most sympathetic character, but piling this much drama on her in such a short time seems cruel, and I think that Selznick's original idea of turning the novel into two separate films may have been a better idea.
Finally, when looking at GONE WITH THE WIND, I feel it is important to discuss this film's attitudes towards the South and slavery.  Any fan of old movies knows racism is just a sad fact of Hollywood history; from studios forcing African American actors to change their names to "Stepin Fetchit" and "Sleep 'n' Eat", to Katherine Hepburn playing an Asian woman(!) in 1944's DRAGON SEED, the dated attitudes of those times make some movies unwatchable today.  But GWTW is more complicated on this issue than other films of that era.  It opens with this credit crawl:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind... 

This passage(which is not found in the novel) clearly establishes the film as a romanticization of the days of the antebellum South, and its hyperbole (gallantry took its last bow?) puts it over the top. Overblown it may be (most Southerners at the time didn't even own slaves),  this film was so popular  that for many people in America, when we think of Southern plantations, we think of this film's nostalgic view, with fancy dress balls where chivalrous young men vied for the women's attentions while mint juleps were sipped on the veranda.  And slavery was just accepted as a fact of life, and necessary to the running of the plantation. So, while there are likable African American characters in the film, they are clearly portrayed as happy slaves, who don't question their fate or sympathize with the Union in any way; in one hard to believe moment, former slaves are seen proudly marching off to help the Confederate soldiers! The only African American we see in the film that isn't a slave is an unlikable carpet bagger who refuses to give a ride to a handicapped Confederate veteran.  And then there is the character of the maid/house slave Mamie (Hattie McDaniel), who, as stereotypical as she is,  is also the one character in the film who is always wise to Scartlett's tricks;  when Rhett refers to her as wise in one scene, we can see why.  McDaniel won a best supporting actress award for the role, the first African American actor to win, or even be nominated, and I think she deserved it.  Unfortunately, she defined a role that would quickly become the only kind open to African American actresses; the feisty maid who has no life of her own outside of the household she works for.  Years later, when singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday appeared in films, they had to play maids who just happened to sing.   So in many ways, this film was one step forward, two steps back in the depiction of African Americans in movies, but, like all works of art, it is a product of its time.
More than anything, GONE WITH THE WIND shows the difficulty in telling a war story (from any war) entirely from one side; I'm sure to many Southerners of that time, this film accurately shows their feelings of anger at the Union "invasion" of the South, but, obviously, the war meant something entirely different to the Union and the slaves.  So, I would recommend that parents today show their children this movie as an educational tool about the Civil War, but I think they may also want to show them Edward Zwick's 1989 film GLORY to see the other side of the story.

1939 has become a legendary year for classic Hollywood fans; along with this film, numerous other enduring classics were released that year: MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, STAGECOACH, GUNGA DIN, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and the underrated but still wonderful NINOTCHKA.  But for me there is one film that towers above them all, and that holds up even better than  GONE WITH THE WIND, and that film is THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Amazingly, Victor Fleming was also credited with directing that film too!  (Even more amazing, he replaced George Cukor on that film also).