Monday, April 19, 2010

Casablanca: You Must Remember This Film

Okay, this is the scene—a girl walks into a bar. Everyone is drinking and dancing; a good time is to be had by all. The piano player is playing songs everyone loves. The piano player sees the woman—he knows her from a time ago—and a look of worry passes over his face. The woman is accompanied by a tall and handsome man. The man looks special, important. The woman is left alone as the man tends to business. She sits down next to the piano player. He pretends not to see her. She engages him in conversation, and the piano player replies in clipped, terse answers—it is as if he is afraid someone will see whom he is speaking to. The camera closes in on the girl, the left side of her face softly lit, and a sparkle in her eye. She leans toward the piano player, touches him gently and requests a song. “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Although Sam has been expressly forbidden to play the song, he cannot deny the girl. The first notes of the song and the weariness in Sam’s voice flutter gently throughout the bar, the music freezing the place in time. “You must remember this; a kiss is just a kiss…” The bar owner comes out, indignant upon hearing the forbidden song—but he is stopped when he sees her radiant face. He knows now why Sam is playing “As Time Goes By”—and who has requested it. His heart is breaking all over again.

Perfection in film is witnessed when Ilsa Lund walks in with Victor Laszlo to Rick Blaine’s Café Américain and asks Sam the piano player to play “As Time Goes By.” The loneliness of the two former lovers, the way Sam appears frightened (he knows too well the heartache Ilsa has caused Rick) as Ilsa walks into the bar, the way Ingrid Bergman’s face seems to glow and calm Sam, the devastating reaction Humphrey Bogart gives Rick once he sees Ilsa, the perfect use of “As Time Goes By” and the way Dooley Wilson sings it—with such tenderness and alacrity (though he is mimicking tickling the ivories; Wilson couldn’t play a note—chalk the success of his part up to movie magic)—evokes in the audience memories of a melancholy song too personal for them to bear, even if this is the first time you have heard the Herman Hupfield standard. When you watch Casablanca, this scene is the one that I guarantee will suck viewers into the world of the film—unless, of course, you are already there. Were this the only scene filmed for the picture, Casablanca would be deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. That the rest of Casablanca is as good is a testament to the greatness of the film and one of the only times that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the absolutely right movie.

Casablanca is a film where perfection looks so easy. In reality, the picture was designed to be just another movie rolled off the Warner Brothers lot. Director Michael Curtiz, a veteran director known more for his ability to work quickly rather than having a particular style (he shot over forty previous films for Warner Brothers), was the fourth-choice director on a list topped by William Wyler. Curtiz was known to have clashed with the writers over the script. The writers would point out an inaccuracy or questionable logic in the story, but Curtiz preferred to keep things moving as fast as possible, trusting that the images on screen would sweep the audience away in suspended disbelief (and Curtiz was right). The story is lauded as the best screenplay ever written—the lines are among the wittiest and funniest and most divine dialogue ever penned (on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes, lines from Casablanca occupy six positions on the list—Nos. 5, 20, 28, 32, 43, and 67—far more than any other film)—but the script was being constantly rewritten by a hodgepodge of writers, usually a sign that a film is doomed to failure. Max Steiner, who scored the film, didn’t even want to use “As Time Goes By,” originally used in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the play from which Casablanca was adapted. Steiner wished to compose a new song, but by the time he got around to scoring the film (the score is one of the last pieces of the film to be completed, always after the final footage has been filmed) Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair for For Whom the Bell Tolls and reshoots were impossible. A much appreciated thanks goes out to Ernest Hemingway, because Casablanca is unimaginable without that song, and Steiner eventually built the score around leitmotifs from “As Time Goes By” and the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” (more on that later). A whole book could be written on how Casablanca came together in spite of itself. The film is the ultimate miracle ever created by the Hollywood studio system (the whole film, save the airport scene at the end, was shot on the Warner’s lot).

I’m not going to delve too deeply into how Casablanca was created. The special features on the DVD are the place for that. Instead, as I have done with How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver, I will analyze Casablanca as it compares to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief—in this case, bargaining.

The entire theme of Casablanca concerns bargaining. This is a film that speaks the language of deals and compromise. Kübler-Ross defines bargaining as hope that an individual can postpone or delay dealing with death by offering an exchange of a reformed lifestyle with a higher power. In the world of Casablanca, characters must bargain to survive—in a literal and spiritual sense and often both at the same time. In the film, the city of Casablanca is represented as the last station for the waylaid. For European refugees looking to escape from the Nazi regime, Casablanca is the transfer point for those wishing to journey into America (crucially, the film is set before the events of Pearl Harbor, allowing for both the plot device and for Rick to retain his cynicism). Any refugee looking to escape Casablanca needs “letters of transit” to enter neutral Portugal then into America. Therefore, a letter of transit can fetch a considerable sum, effectively placing a price on freedom. This necessity also creates a city that attracts all sorts of vices and black market activities. Refugees are easy prey for the pickpockets, gamblers, con-men and counterfeiters who make up the permanent residents of Casablanca. The scarcity of letters of transit forces those wishing to escape to make moral compromises. How far will a person go to obtain freedom? How soon will someone turn to illegal measures? What cost will they pay? These are the conflicts the characters in the film come into contact with on a daily basis.

The plot of the film really kicks in when a petty criminal, Ugarte (finely played by character actor Peter Lorre, who will forever be remembered by his nasal, desperate, whine for “Reeeeck!”), steals two letters of transit from Nazi officials, signed by none other than General Charles de Gaulle (if you ever want to know the definition of a MacGuffin, look no further than these letters of transit—they are a classic one). It is implied that Ugarte murdered the two Nazis carrying the letters, so he is targeted by Captain Renault (an unflappable Claude Rains, who steals his every scene), a corrupt opportunist and completely amoral police official working for the Vichy-controlled government in Casablanca. Renault sums up his philosophy thusly, “I have no convictions. I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy,” proving himself to be one who bargains exclusively with those who have the most power and will provide him with the most opportunities to get rich (Renault is no stranger to bribes in the film). What Renault doesn’t know is that Ugarte has entrusted the letters to Rick Blaine (Bogart, in his most famous role), an American expatriate who owns a popular bar, the Café Américain. Ugarte gives Rick the letters because “somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I can trust.” Ugarte’s rationale perfectly encapsulates how topsy-turvy the state of bargaining has become in Casablanca: the people who hate you are the least likely to screw you over.

Though Rick appears to be as amoral as Renault—saying, with utter conviction, that “he sticks his neck out for nobody” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in”—his cynicism masks the compromises he has made for survival. The escape Rick is looking for isn’t from Casablanca; instead Rick seeks an emotional withdrawal, and the bargain he has made with himself is this: to not care about anything is better than having your heart broken. In Café Américain, politics are a taboo topic. When asked his nationality, Rick replies “A drunkard.” (This causes Captain Renault to retort, “That makes Rick a citizen of the world.”) Rick even drives away any chance he may have at love. A scene in the first act of the film has him coolly dismiss a former flame (Madeleine LeBeau). For Rick, his bargain is all about emotional survival.

Almost immediately, Rick’s attitude is revealed as a façade. He does, in fact, stick his neck out for his employees. Emil, his bartender, sneaks drinks to women he is trying to pick up. Carl (S.Z. Sakall), his waiter, is allowed to place refugees in contact with bar patrons who will more expediently secure their escape. Rick’s croupier runs a rigged roulette game which helps refugees secure bribe money for exit visas. The doorman Abdul is a trusted confidante. Sam, in addition to being the star piano player, is Rick’s right hand man who came with him from Paris. (Of all the Best Picture winners thus far, Casablanca is the only one which treats foreigners and minorities as equals. Sam is the first black character in an Oscar winning film to really be treated as an equal to whites. The multicultural cast is one of the tricks used by Curtiz to sell the illusion of Casablanca as a truly foreign place.) Rick himself allows certain customers to pay using IOU’s, but yet refuses to allow Germans to play games in the casino. Every member of his staff is crucial to the smooth operation Rick runs at his saloon, which on the outside appears to cater to everyone equally but masks a small resistance unit to help the needy. (One of the lies the audience is willing to forgive is how this saloon, which bleeds money, can possibly continue to operate in the red and evade closure by the Vichy officials.) Rick’s balancing act becomes truly tested when freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) walks into the café with his former flame, Ilsa (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine”).

Laszlo, of all the characters in the film, is the least compromising. He’s also a bit of a bore (this aspect of the character isn’t helped by Henreid’s stiff performance, easily the weakest part of an otherwise all-around strong film), and primarily functions as a foil to Rick’s cynicism. The audience is told that Laszlo is part of the Czech Resistance to the Nazis, but exactly what he does is never illuminated (and it isn’t really important). Laszlo needs to reach America to continue his work with the underground resistance, and he cannot do the work well unless Ilsa, the love of his life, is there with him (as Renault astutely observes, when Rick—before knowing he is with Ilsa—says that Laszlo needs only one exit visa, “I think not. I have seen the lady.”) Awfully convenient for Laszlo that two letters of transit are hidden in Sam’s piano, isn’t it? The only bargain Laszlo makes with Rick is to appeal directly to the better nature of his humanity.

Laszlo has some evidence that Rick is a deeper man than his bitterness suggests. Rick’s past as a freedom fighter in Spain and Ethiopia is widely known to everybody in Casablanca. Laszlo is quick to note that Rick also seems to stick his neck out for underdogs—though Rick replies that he was a mercenary in both of those fights, causing Renault to remark, “The winning side would have paid you better.” Laszlo is also aware of the bargains Rick has struck for some of the wayward refugees in Casablanca. A minor subplot involves a young Bulgarian couple trying to escape to America. The girl is offered two visas if she sleeps with Renault, but when she comes to Rick’s her husband is shown how to win at the rigged roulette wheel. Laszlo cannot help but notice Rick’s compassion. Finally, in the film’s most rousing sequence, Laszlo finds the clearest evidence yet that Rick is on his side.

Before Ilsa and Laszlo walk into Rick’s, the antagonist of the picture, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, a German actor who escaped Hitler’s regime and ironically made a career of playing Nazis) is also introduced. Ah, Nazis, the great bastards and villains of American cinema. Strasser is in Casablanca for one purpose: to keep Laszlo from making his escape, or better yet, kill him. Sides are immediately drawn, new allegiances are shaped. To nobody’s surprise, prevailing winds make Renault an ally of Strasser. Yvonne, Rick’s discarded girlfriend, also finds a new beau within the Nazi ranks. The day after Laszlo’s arrival, Nazi soldiers are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine)”, a popular patriotic German song. A furious Laszlo orders Rick to have his band play “La Marseillaise”, and Rick accedes to his request. Laszlo leads the entire saloon (save, of course, the Germans and Rick—still trying to give off the appearance that he is apolitical) in a stirring rendition of the French national anthem that sings down the Germans. Even Yvonne, there with her Nazi boyfriend, becomes so caught up in the fervor that she too joins in the singing of “La Marseillaise”, a tear in her eye. Strasser is incensed, and orders Renault to shut down the Café Américain. (This brings about my favorite line in the film. Rick asks Strasser the grounds on which the Nazis have ordered his business closed. Renault says illegal gambling. The croupier tells Renault, “Your winnings, sir.” Renault says “Oh, thank you very much,” then “Everybody out at once!”)

Rick’s act of patriotism has cost him his business. Rick sees the writing on the wall; Nazi occupation in Casablanca is only going to make things increasingly difficult for him. He has however arranged for the Café Américain to be sold to Signor Ferrari (the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet, a frequent costar of both Bogart and Lorre), who describes himself as “the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.” Although Ferrari runs an establishment—The Blue Parrot—that is the chief competitor of the Café Américain, like Ugarte, Rick trusts Ferrari precisely because he is his rival. Again, the safest negotiation one can make in Casablanca is with one’s enemy (and Rick also knows that Ferrari will look out for his staff, especially Sam, of whom Ferrari says “It wouldn’t be Rick’s without him”). The most dangerous bargain Rick has left is with the person he loves most—Ilsa.

Curtiz uses an extended flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris to fully flesh out the background of their relationship. The most important thing the viewer is left with is that Rick is still impossibly in love with Ilsa (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”), and Ilsa, though married to Laszlo, still loves him. Ilsa tries to use the relationship to her advantage. The film has established that sex can be used to buy freedom, and the rekindling of a sexual relationship is implicit when Ilsa comes to Rick alone. When that doesn’t work, Ilsa draws a pistol on Rick, but is unable to shoot, proving to Rick her love for him. Ilsa offers him this bargain: “You have to think for both of us. For all of us.”

Rick, now holding the upper hand in negotiations (and lest the audience forget, he is still in possession of the letters of transit), is free to determine Ilsa’s fate. I think everyone who has seen Casablanca has asked themselves: Why doesn’t Rick use the letters for himself and Ilsa and leave with the love of his life? Ilsa certainly has nothing to lose. By this point in the film, it is assumed that she will receive one of the letters. She will be safe. She will leave Casablanca with a man who loves her. And why wouldn’t she want to be with Rick? After all, he’s proven himself to be capable of protecting her, she knows he truly loves her, and facetiously, Rick is the more exciting man than Laszlo—and just as noble. Who isn’t charmed by him? If Rick gives the papers to Laszlo, he will certainly be doing right for the cause of resistance, but he will be left in Casablanca a wanted man without his livelihood, his heartbreak amplified. Rick’s bargain now has life-changing consequences: leave with the woman he loves or sacrifice that love for the greater good. Which is more important—love or freedom?

The ending of Casablanca has seeped into pop-culture consciousness through osmosis. Everyone knows that Ilsa gets on the plane to Lisbon with Laszlo (and if you haven’t seen Casablanca, sorry to spoil it, but I must ask you—why the hell haven’t you seen this masterpiece yet?). The tension created in the film is phony, because ultimately the Hays Code which governed morality in films at the time would have never allowed a married woman to abscond with a single man—it is a testament to the skills of Curtiz, Bogart, and Bergman that the audience is kept on the edge of their seat when the outcome is so obvious and by now so well known. It is the new bargain Rick makes with himself that gives the ending resonance. Ultimately he knows that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” and that Ilsa will regret not boarding the plane with Laszlo. Regret becomes the emotion that Rick also does not want to feel. He knows that if he goes with her then Laszlo will likely die. Rick knows that if he takes the letters and leaves with Ilsa he will feel regret over the loss of an important life. He is also then able to reconcile his memories of their relationship. No longer will Rick’s memories of Ilsa bring him sorrow. (“We’ll always have Paris.”) Because he has sacrificed his love for the greater good, Rick is able to find happiness in his memories and his soul is at ease. In his new bargain, Rick listens to his conscience.

Appropriately, Casablanca concludes with the two craftiest bargainers—Rick and Captain Renault—walking off into the fog together. (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”) Renault, who in the final act is utterly played by Rick, finds a bargainer worthy of future co-conspiracy. After all, he witnesses Rick murder Major Strasser. Renault’s response—“Round up the usual suspects.” He knows that justice in Casablanca is best levied by leaving a crime unsolved, and that the prevailing winds will now blow him over to Rick. Inaction leads to a minor redemption for Captain Renault. I love that it isn’t a sunset the two men walk off into, but a fog. Their future is uncertain, but as the film fades to black the audience is left with a sense that no matter what fate awaits Rick and Renault—and since the audience has the benefit of knowing world history, it can be safely assumed that the adventures that the pair will embark on will be perilous—they will be able to bargain for both survival and a clear soul.

I think the reason Casablanca has resonated so deeply with audiences is because that despite its ultimate artifice, the film recognizes that its audience also makes bargains, deals and difficult choices on a daily basis in order to survive. The characters in the film mirror the audience watching them, and this is why the film has rooted itself so deeply in the consciousness of American popular culture. Certainly in 1943, Americans could no longer afford to be in denial about the war and the time for being angry about the rotten state of the globe had come to pass. It was now time to deal with it. As time goes by, our world continues to grow more complicated, and Casablanca will continue to resonate. Most movies—and certainly most films that win Best Picture—wish to provide audiences with a sense of grandeur, romance, and escape from reality. Undoubtedly, Casablanca succeeds on all of these fronts. Long after the lights have come up in the theater, long after the DVD has stopped playing, this film sticks with you because—like Victor Laszlo—it dares to pierce right through the masks we wear and the bargains we make and says that human beings are people of conscience, righteousness, and good. Casablanca wants everybody to be like Rick Blaine.

Readers, the bargain I will strike with you is this: you must remember Casablanca.


Casablanca (1943*) (The film gets an asterisk because it first premiered in New York City on November 26th, 1942. However, Academy rules state that for a picture to be considered for an Oscar within a calendar year, the film must be released in Los Angeles County by December 30th in its year of eligibility. Since Casablanca went wide the following January, it was thus eligible to compete against films released in 1943. Mrs. Miniver should consider itself lucky.)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau

Studio: Warner Brothers

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Director—Michael Curtiz, Best Adapted Screenplay—Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) out of 8 total nominations (Best Actor—Humphrey Bogart, Best Supporting Actor—Claude Rains, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score—Max Steiner)

NEXT BLOG: Going My Way

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mrs. Miniver: Life During Wartime

In watching the Best Picture Oscar winners, it is sometimes difficult to completely shed any preconceived notions I’ve had of certain films. I thought Wings would be a chore to get through because it is a silent film, when it turned out to be captivating and delightful. Before heading into Mrs. Miniver, all I had heard of the film was that it was a “women’s weepie”—a genre I do not usually rush to see—filled with melodrama and tragedy. I discovered that melodrama is only a small part of Mrs. Miniver. The film is, in fact, a skillfully made piece of propaganda—and I mean this in the most complimentary way—that was designed, in part, to provoke America into action.

As I explained out in my last post, I am using Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief as a basis for analysis for five successive 1940’s Best Picture winners. In 1941, the Oscar was awarded to How Green Was My Valley, a nostalgia driven drama. I argued that nostalgia was a form of denial, and the picture represented a country who would prefer to remember an idealized past instead of dealing with a complicated present. Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly a propaganda film, the aim of which is to provoke an emotional response. I would say that any sort of provocation is an act of anger, and there was certainly anger motivating filmmaker William Wyler when he made Mrs. Miniver.

William Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller in 1902 in the Alsace region of France, which at the time was part of Germany. His family was Jewish, and his mother was a relative of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. In 1921, Wyler immigrated to America, where he worked in the New York offices of Universal. Wyler worked his way up through the ladder to become a successful director in Hollywood. In 1928, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and he became known as a director with relentless passion and perfectionism. He was notorious for demanding multiple takes from his actors, with often no reason aside from he did not think the performance was good enough or that he simply wanted to see it again. Despite his reputation, throughout his career Wyler’s films were magnets for critical acclaim. Actors and crew who have participated in his films garnered more Oscar nominations than any other director in film history. Wyler himself holds the record for the most nominations received for Best Director—at twelve—and won three times. Relentless perfectionism is what motivated Wyler as a director and a human being.

The United States entered World War II on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. Europe was thrust into World War when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, though the continent had dealt with the rise of fascism for much of the 1930’s. Europeans were far quicker to realize the danger this threat presented to the globe. Americans preferred to have an isolationist policy in regards to the conflicts in Europe. Although the Germans and Italians declared war on the United States only four days after Pearl Harbor, U.S. military presence was not truly established until the end of 1942. Many of the filmmakers working in Hollywood were, like Wyler, immigrants who fled to the United States and became citizens. Wyler openly despised the Nazis, and fully admitted he made Mrs. Miniver to show that an isolationist policy would cause more harm than it prevented. The film is rooted in righteous indignation. Wyler was able to channel his anger into art.

Yet as the film begins in the summer of 1939, it is more concerned with the banalities of everyday life for the British upper middle class than it is with spurring a nation to war. Mrs. Fay Miniver—magnificently played by Greer Garson, the Meryl Streep of the 1940’s with five consecutive Best Actress nominations in the decade (she also received a nomination in 1939 and another in 1960)—is first seen in the film going on a shopping trip. She is well known in her neighborhood, and she buys a fancy hat. Mr. Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon, who would co-star with Garson in eight films), her architect husband, also makes an impetuous purchase—a new car. The Minivers return home to their two young children, Judy and Toby. After their kids are asleep, husband and wife question if they are spending their money unwisely, but they come to the conclusion that they are in a position to afford the little luxuries. I found it difficult to fully empathize with this family at the beginning of the film. After all, these are people who can afford cooks and servants and also have a private boat launch along the Thames.

Another subplot introduced early on in the film is an annual flower show, where for the past 30 years the top prize in the rose competition is always won by aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Lady Beldon has some serious competition in the rose grown by Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers, best known for playing the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). The stationmaster names his rose after Mrs. Miniver because he admires her beauty, and anyone who sees the flower agrees that not only is it aptly named, but it also has the best chance in years to unseat Lady Beldon from her domination of the rose competition. The day after the Minivers made their extravagant purchases, they meet their eldest son Vin (Richard Ney, whom Garson married after the film, and although he plays her son Ney was only eleven years younger than Garson), who is returning home from Oxford for the summer holiday. Kay, Vin and Clem all attend a dance later that evening, where Lady Beldon’s granddaughter, Carol (Teresa Wright), asks Kay to dissuade Mr. Ballard from entering his rose in the competition. Vin is quick to judge Carol as pompous, but Carol ends up being rather well grounded. Vin, in contrast, is the arrogant one, having returned to the village from Oxford with a know-it-all-attitude. However, Vin and Carol do recognize a mutual attraction, and they soon fall in love.

For the first half of the film, Wyler creates a world of banalities. Shopping trips, flower competitions, young love—these are hardly the subjects of a wartime propaganda film. As the film plays out, these details become crucial in establishing the world the characters live in. The audience has the foreknowledge that this perfect world will soon be thrust into chaos, and drama is created by seeing how these people will react in the story. Soon enough, news of the Hitler’s invasion of Poland reaches Britain. Later, at Sunday services, the sermon of the vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) is interrupted by the news that England is now officially at war with Germany. Vin decides to join the RAF. The villagers are encouraged to make preparations to defend themselves against air raids. Some, like Lady Beldon, don’t take these warnings seriously, but soon enough, all the homes have bomb shelters, emergency kits, and evacuation plans. Despite the chaos of the war looming, Vin does propose to Carol, and everyone tries to live as normally as possible.

The night of Vin’s proposal to Carol, he is summoned back to his airbase. Because the Minivers own a boat, Clem—along with thousands of other Britons who own private vessels—is ordered to help with the evacuation of British soldiers in Dunkirk, France. Rumors abound of a German soldier who parachuted out of his plane and landed in the village. Sure enough, Kay—alone in her home—is approached by the injured German. He holds her at gunpoint in her own kitchen, demanding to be fed. His injuries catch up to him and Kay is able to subdue the soldier and confiscate his revolver. As the police come to take him away, the German soldier rants about how England will fall to the might of Germany, just as Poland and Holland did. Kay responds by slapping him. Thereafter, Clem returns from Dunkirk and the family learns that Vin is also safe. When Vin returns home, Kay secures Lady Beldon’s approval for Vin and Carol’s marriage and the do so.

While the young couple are away for their honeymoon, the stage is set for the most harrowing and effective sequence in Mrs. Miniver. Air raid horns have sounded and the Miniver family is spending the night in their bomb shelter. It is hardly larger than a tool shed, and one gets the impression that if the shelter were to take a direct hit, everyone inside would perish. More than anything, Kay and Clem want to preserve a sense of normalcy for their youngest children, Toby and Judy. As the children are put to bed, Kay knits and Clem reads a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland pertaining to the joys of childhood. The passage lulls the children to sleep, and Kay then wonders if Carroll would have ever figured that his novel would become so beloved decades after it was written. I found this to be tremendously effective, because at their core, despite their many blessings, Kay and Clem are simply two people reading a bedtime story to their children and marveling over its enchanting power. What parent hasn’t wondered this?

It is at that point that the bombing intensifies. At first, Kay and Clem do their best to ignore the buzzing of planes flying overhead and the cacophony of the explosions, but the shelter becomes shaken and the children awaken frightened. The power in the bomb shelter is soon cut off, and the family huddles together, desperately clinging to one another, knowing full well that the only chance they have to make it through the night is to pray that a bomb does fall anywhere near them. Random luck will determine if the family survives; they have no choice but to hold one another. Wyler films the entire bomb shelter sequence in one incredible take, and the sound effects really hold center stage and seem to shake the frame apart. When the family is clinging together only the whites of Garson’s eyes illuminate the screen. It is the most desperate moment for the family in the film, and Wyler does an incredibly effective job of placing them alone, in the dark, with utter chaos enveloping them.

I was not prepared for the visceral reaction I had to watching the bombing sequence. I watched the film late at night, in my darkened living room, while my wife and daughter slept. The power of the scene shook me to tears. I think because now that I am both a husband and father, it was easy for me to feel as vulnerable as Kay and Clem Miniver. I have no doubt that audiences in 1942 felt the same, and we have the brilliance of William Wyler, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon to thank for it (not to mention the two fine young actors playing Toby and Judy). With the bomb shelter sequence, Wyler succeeds in placing his audience inside the film, and the emotions the characters experience become our own.

Despite that harrowing sequence, the final act of the film does find time for levity. The flower competition gathers the entire village together, and the climax of the show pits Mr. Ballard’s Mrs. Miniver rose against Lady Beldon’s championship flower. The judges, each terrified of Lady Beldon and the power she wields in the community, have again awarded the top prize to her. Kay convinces Lady Beldon that the judges are only choosing her rose because of her status, not because her rose is indeed better. Lady Beldon announces that the Mrs. Miniver rose has won the top prize, and an extraordinarily humbled Mr. Ballard tearfully accepts. With his victory, the entire village finds cause to celebrate, but it is short-lived, as the air raid sirens have again sounded. On the way home, Kay and Carol are driving together when a plane falls from the sky. It glances off the car and fatally wounds Carol.
The final scene in the film has the entire community attending service in their bombarded and hollowed out church. The vicar delivers a memorable and stirring speech that I will reprint in its entirety:

“We, in this quiet corner of England, have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us—some close to this church: George West, choir boy; James Ballard, station master and bell ringer and a proud winner, only one hour before his death, of the Belding Cup for his beautiful Miniver rose; and our hearts go out in sympathy to the two families who share the cruel loss of a young girl who was married at this altar only two weeks ago. The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There is scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourself this question. Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness. Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed? I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people, of all the people, and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home, and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom! Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the people's war! It is our war! We are the fighters! Fight it then! Fight it with all that is in us, and may God defend the right.”

The congregation then rises to sing, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and a formation of RAF planes can be seen flying in a V formation through the bombed-out hole in the roof of the church. Propaganda? Certainly, and so highly effective that Winston Churchill declared the film did more for the war effort than a “flotilla of destroyers”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt incorporated the vicar’s sermon into leaflets about morale building and was translated into many languages and dropped over enemy lines. The public was also captivated by the film. Mrs. Miniver became the highest grossing picture for MGM, it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was easily the highest grossing picture of 1942. The American magazine Film Daily polled 592 critics as to the best film of 1942, and 555 named Mrs. Miniver. By November of that year, the United States was wholly involved with on the European front of WWII.

One of the main criticisms Mrs. Miniver has faced is that its propaganda is too slick; that the film exists solely for purposes of manipulation. My response is to say film is manipulation. We enter a dark auditorium with the purpose of allowing a story to carry us away. Audiences yearn to feel emotional. We want to laugh. We want to cry. We want to be inspired. Wyler—who made Mrs. Miniver fully intent as a way to funnel his anger at America’s isolationist policy into the viewing audience—made a film that slowly sneaks up on its viewers, drawing them into an England concerned with dance parties, flower shows and above all keeping up appearances. When each of these comforts are taken away, Mrs. Miniver shows us characters that react with dignity, pride, and grace while also leaving them with a call to arms, that the true battles and tests of character were yet to come.

Sixty-eight years later, a lone viewer in a small apartment—one fully aware of the outcome of history—was also manipulated. The potency of the propaganda within Mrs. Miniver has not waned. The genius of Wyler’s direction and the artistry of the acting (the film was the first for receive five acting nominations, one in each category)—especially from the magnificent Greer Garson—will keep the fires contained within the film well stoked.


Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Total Oscars: 6 (Best Picture; Best Director—William Wyler; Best Actress—Greer Garson (*an interesting sidebar: Garson’s acceptance speech was the longest in the history of the Oscar ceremony, clocking in at over 5½ minutes); Best Supporting Actress—Teresa Wright; Best Adapted Screenplay—George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis; Best Cinematography, B&W) out of 12 nominations (Best Actor—Walter Pidgeon, Best Supporting Actor—Henry Travers, Best Supporting Actress—Dame May Whitty, Best Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects)

NEXT: Casablanca

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Green Was My Valley: The Richness of Memory

I’m going to come right out and say it: How Green Was My Valley did not deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Now, don’t take this as a judgment on the quality of the film itself. There is much to admire in Josh Ford’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel. Considering the competition—Sergeant York, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, and above all, Citizen Kane—the film has taken on an ignominious identity as the least deserving Best Picture winner of all time (and had the field of nominees been those five instead of ten, How Green Was My Valley may be considered the weakest). Retroactively, it is easy to judge the merits (or lack thereof) of an award winner. Hell, it’s also quite fun to do so. However, I think in this instance, How Green Was My Valley is unfairly maligned, especially since it shares much in common with the critical consensus choice of the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane.

Now, I said in my last post that each of the Best Picture winners of the 1940’s will act as a litmus test to how audiences reacted to the various changes and crises (especially World War II) occurring around them. If we use the Kübler-Ross model describing the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—How Green Was My Valley is firmly in the camp of denial (and by the way, I will be using the consecutive stages of the Kübler-Ross model as a basis of comparison for five successive Oscar winners of the 1940’s—Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, and The Best Years of Our Lives).

Primarily, How Green Was My Valley is a film about nostalgia. I think nostalgia is a potent form of denial where a person yearns for an idealized past as a way to mask an inability or unwillingness to cope with a less than ideal present. The very title of the film is a tip off to its tone. The valley was green, implying that today, it must not be. The film is structured—like Citizen Kane—as a flashback, told through the eyes of Huw (Roddy McDowall, in one of the finest performances ever given by a child actor), the youngest member of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a family of coal miners living in South Wales, and Huw recounts his experiences as a boy. He has a rather Dickensian life—Huw is witness to tragedy as well as happiness—but the experiences recalled all point to comfort and personal growth.

The Morgans are a family steeped in rituals. There are clearly defined roles for each member. Father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and the five elder sons—Ianto, Ivor, Gwilym Jr., Davy and Owen—toil every day in the coal mine. Mother Beth (Sara Allgood) and sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) are in charge of keeping order in the household. Huw is the student. The film takes time to show the everyday rituals of the Morgan family. When the men return home each day from work, Beth waits at the door to collect wages from each man as they walk through the door. At the dinner table, Gwilym is the first to be served and the last to finish. Beth is served last and finishes first. The father offers grace, and the family eats in silence. After dinner, the wages are distributed to each family member by age. Ianto receives the largest amount; Huw a single coin. The family rituals bring comfort, tranquility, and order to the Morgan family.

It is only when the rituals are disrupted that danger enters the story. Gwilym, despite having the respect of every man who he works with, remains loyal to the mine owner when wages are being reduced. His sons each advocate for a union (which Gwilym Sr. derides as “socialist nonsense”) and eventually decide to strike. The change in demeanor of the miners is signified by the fact that they are no longer singing when they return home (the miners in the film sing more often than the Seven Dwarfs). The strike lasts for months and Gwilym becomes ostracized by the men who once looked up to him. The strike indirectly causes injury to Huw and Beth when on a cold night after a meeting in which Beth defended her husband to the townsfolk now against him, she stumbles into a freezing river and Huw jumps in to save her. Huw temporarily loses the use of his legs afterward.

Huw’s convalescence becomes a happy memory. The new preacher (Walter Pidgeon), Mr. Gruffydd (that’s pronounced Griffith for those unfamiliar with their Welsh); helps Huw regain his confidence by reading him stories and teaching him to use prayer to regain strength. Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad also become instantly smitten, though their relationship becomes complicated by Angharad’s engagement to the son of the mine’s owner. Though Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad are passionately in love with one another, the marriage of Angharad is arranged as a way to show there is no bad blood between the workers and the owners. Angharad professes her love for the preacher, but Mr. Gruffydd knows that Angharad would remain in a life of poverty if she remained with him, as well as disrupting the truce between the miners and owners the marriage symbolizes. He sacrifices love to maintain rituals and appearances.

Eventually, the Morgan family becomes splintered. Gwilym Jr. and Owen depart for richer pastures in America when wages become too thin. Later in the film, Ivor is killed in an accident, and Ianto and Davy are also laid off and forced to go overseas to find work. Huw leaves the valley for the first time to enroll in school, but he finds danger in the outside world as he is bullied by his fellow students and teachers (though in an amusing subplot, Huw learns to fight back, and well). Eventually, Huw chooses to work in the mines alongside his father, and become a caretaker to Ivor’s widow, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)—who Huw fell in love with at first sight in the beginning of the film—and her infant son. By the end of the film, the rituals the town has developed break apart completely, gossip and mistrust dominate the valley, and death comes to Gwilym in a cave-in. The film ends with a montage of the happier times in Huw’s life, and concludes with the line, “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still—real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.” Scenes of happy memories then flash by—Huw’s first glimpse of Bronwyn’s beauty, the Morgan family at dinner, Angharad waving at Mr. Gruffydd, the five brothers together, and a scene of Huw and his father, hand-in-hand, walking over a crest of a hill. With the present being messy and complicated, the past looks greener indeed.

Ultimately, Citizen Kane vouches for the same ideal. The entire film is structured around the mystery of Kane’s dying utterance: “Rosebud”. The newsreel reporter gains access the people closest to Charles Foster Kane, and they each reveal a portion of his life. Kane is a man who seems to embody the American dream (Kane even says at one point in the film “I am, above all, an American.”). He has an abundance of wealth. He has a family. He is the most powerful man in his profession. He has built an opulent mansion. In the end though, it turns out that the people closest to Kane find him just as enigmatic as the reporter. Nobody truly knows the man, and he dies in Xanadu (his mansion), a home filled with meaningless possessions. Of those items (oh, and if you have never seen Citizen Kane or don’t by virtue of cultural osmosis know the identity of Rosebud, I’m totally going to SPOIL it right now, but the film is rich enough that you can know what Rosebud is and still be blown away by Orson Welles’ picture—so you’ve been warned, and don’t bitch at me) a sled is thrown into a fire, with the word “Rosebud” written on it. In a key scene in the very first flashback, Kane is shown as a young boy riding his sled before his parents sing away their legal guardianship of him. “Rosebud” comes to signify the only period in Kane’s life where he felt true happiness. Although Kane doesn’t have the richness of memories Huw does, he too, is ultimately nostalgic for the happiest time in his life. In a way, Welles is as sentimental as Capra in saying that all the wealth and all the material things and all the power a man could ever hope to obtain are things you cannot take with you when you die. Only richness of memory endures.

Ford’s Oscar winner and Welles’ greatest film of all time each have the same message. The films have more in common than their reputations would suggest. While Citizen Kane can be cynical and bitter (and also incredibly profound) and How Green Was My Valley is sweet and sentimental (and also a big-time tearjerker—have your hankies at the ready, easily weepy ones), both films turn to nostalgia to find the ultimate places of happiness for their characters. If nostalgia is a form of denial, then How Green Was My Valley represents an American culture in denial about the changes and madness sweeping the globe at the time. The film was released on October 28th, 1941, so initial audiences were clueless to the massive tragedy about to occur only five weeks later. Films of the Golden Age of Hollywood were designed to play long runs throughout the country—starting in the cities and working their way to the heartland—and as the film made its run, I’m sure its themes of longing for an idealized past brought immense comfort to a country thrust into a world war. How Green Was My Valley represents an America in denial.

I want to mention some of the technical aspects of the film apart from my Kübler-Ross based analysis. In addition to the awards earned by John Ford and the film itself, How Green Was My Valley won Oscars for cinematography and set design. I think most film lovers agree that Welles and his film were robbed, but many film critics feel that the bigger Oscar crime was that Gregg Toland’s revolutionary camera work and the team responsible for the incredible set designs for Citizen Kane lost to their competitors from How Green Was My Valley.

Toland may be the single most influential cinematographer ever, and his work on Citizen Kane revolutionized film. Toland’s use of deep focus photography—meaning that all objects in a frame of film, in both the foreground and background, are in complete crystal clear focus—helped to shape the story of that film as much as the screenplay. In the scene where Kane’s parents sign away their rights to the boy, deep focus is used to marvelous effect. The adults are conducting business in the extreme foreground, but clearly visible through a back window is the young Kane, riding Rosebud in the snow. For viewers watching the film on a repeat viewing, it’s really amazing how many details Toland’s lenses capture, helping to enhance the story. Citizen Kane was the first film to show ceilings, and Toland devised ways for cameras to effectively capture image and sound in a room with a lid. It also allowed for the use of several extreme low angle shots to be filmed—one of the best ways to suggest intimidation and power with a camera.

Kane’s sets prove to be equally important. Xanadu is brought vividly to life. The scene at the end where there are crates and creates of Kane’s belongings perfectly captures the size of his home and how ironically empty it is (the shot is most famously paid homage to by Steven Spielberg at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). The opera house is another fantastic set. Citizen Kane is a film where details were absolutely crucial to the overall effect of the film.

Details are equally as important to How Green Was My Valley. Ford wished to film his picture in Wales, but it was both cost prohibitive and politically impossible to film there (Great Britain, after all, was far more heavily involved with WWII by the time filming started). Therefore, a replica of the Rhondda Valley had to be recreated back in the states. At the 3,000 square foot Fox Ranch in Malibu, the set was erected. The entire town, every building, and the mine in the film are a set and the whole town was functional. Not once does artifice leak through when How Green Was My Valley is viewed. Though totally phony, the sets have a feel of absolute authenticity.

Arthur C. Miller’s photography is also gorgeous. Many scenes from the movie appear to be lifted from postcards (were the film made today, they would be compared to screensaver images). Although Miller’s lenswork doesn’t have the depth of Toland’s the film is crystalline. Miller also takes care to recognize that the events of the story are unfolding through the eyes of a young boy, so the camera is almost always at Huw’s eye level, where the adult world seems much larger than life (Spielberg would use this trick in E.T.). How Green Was My Valley is a beautiful-looking film, the cinematic equivalent of a children’s storybook.

I think Toland deserved the Oscar, but Miller’s work is also award-worthy. The art direction award is a toss-up in my book, but again, both films do marvelous work with their set design and construction. Were Citizen Kane not released in 1941, I think there would be far less critical uproar about the Oscars How Green Was My Valley took home.


How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford

Starring: Roddy McDowell, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Anna Lee, Barry Fitzgerald

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture, Best Director—John Ford, Best Supporting Actor—Donald Crisp, Best Art Direction—B&W, Best Cinematography—B&W) out of 10 nominations (Best Supporting Actress—Sara Allgood, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound Recording)

NEXT BLOG: Mrs. Miniver

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rebecca: One From the Master

Inarguably, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors that ever lived. I’d have him on a shortlist with about three or four others—for arguments’ sake, lets lump him along with Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—to round out a top five. Like Kurosawa and Kubrick (and both Scorsese and Spielberg were given their Oscars long after they had done most of their best work), Hitchcock was never awarded Best Director, despite helming such classics as Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious (the one with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman—not the recent biopic about the Notorious B.I.G.) and The Birds. Rebecca, though an excellent picture, is probably firmly in the middle when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography, but the film had the advantage of being a David O. Selznick production. By the time the Academy Awards ceremony honoring the best films of 1940 rolled around, Selznick used his considerable clout to secure the Best Picture Oscar for Rebecca.

Now, I haven’t seen every picture that was up for Best Picture the year Rebecca won. I do know though that it was up against some more traditional Oscar fare. The Philadelphia Story—with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Best Actor Oscar winner James Stewart (whose Oscar was almost certainly a make-up award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)—was a nominee. The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s satirization of Adolf Hitler—was also nominated. John Ford—the most honored director by the Academy with four Best Director Oscars—had two films in the running, The Long Way Home and The Grapes of Wrath (for which Ford took home his second Oscar). The Grapes of Wrath—with its John Steinbeck source material, iconic performance from Henry Fonda, and timely subject matter (America, after all was coming out of the Great Depression)—would seem like the most likely winner. Selznick proved to be a master campaigner, as Rebecca was completed and ready for release in 1939, but he did not want Hitchcock’s film to compete against Gone With the Wind. He cannily realized he had two prestige pictures on his hands, and delayed Rebecca’s release to become the first producer to win Best Picture two years in a row (and he certainly wouldn’t be the last to use this trick to garner Academy attention).

The power Selznick accrued after his massive victory with Gone With the Wind was formidable enough to secure the Oscar for Rebecca, which was a film unlike any of the dozen Best Picture winners before it. About the only thing Rebecca had in common with the previous winners was that it was adapted from a famous novel. Rebecca was the first film to be helmed by a British director to win Best Picture, and it certainly has a tone more typical of British productions than American ones. The film is undeniably dark, and it has Gothic sensibilities Tim Burton would envy. Hitchcock filled the film with all sorts of subtext about female identity and gender roles—themes he would return to again and again in his films—and the dialogue is laced with sarcasm and black humor. Nearly every film that won the Best Picture Oscar before upheld noble virtues, honesty and individualism (and even the most daring of the previous winners—All Quiet on the Western Front—doesn’t have a trace of irony and sarcasm). Most of the nominees following Rebecca would do the same for decades. Hitchcock’s picture is an Oscar anomaly, as it swims in malfeasance, lies and a lack of identity.

The story—adapted from Daphne du Marnier’s novel of the same name—centers on a nameless female protagonist (Joan Fontaine) and the widower she marries, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). (* Forgive me for launching into an entertaining digression here on Joan Fontaine—she is the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland, and they had a lifelong feud. At age nine, de Havilland made-up a will that said “I hereby bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister Joan, since she has none.” When both sisters were up for the Oscar for Best Actress in 1941, Hitchcock directed Fontaine to an Oscar win in Suspicion. As Fontaine went to collect her Oscar, she brushed right by the extended hand of de Havilland. On the sisters, Hitchcock once mused that he’d love to see the sisters in a film together, if only for the entertainment value provided by their feud. But back to Rebecca…) Maxim lives in a grand old mansion—Manderley (another Selznick picture, another named house)—and he soon expects the new Mrs. de Winter to fill the role held by the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), adored Rebecca to the point of obsession, and isn’t about to cede control of Manderley over to the new wife smoothly. Mrs. Danvers also kept many secrets for her former mistress, such as an affair with her “cousin” Jack (George Sanders, in an acidic role that is a prototype of the reptilian character he would perfect—and win a Supporting Actor Oscar for—in All About Eve as Addison de Witt a decade later), which precipitated the decline of the relationship between Maxim and Rebecca. Ultimately, Rebecca’s presence consumes the new Mrs. de Witt, and the young bride uncovers the many secrets hidden within Manderley’s walls.

Lack (and fear of) female identity is the central theme of the film. Though it isn’t incorrect to assume the lack of an identity for the Fontaine character (whose proper name is never revealed in the film, she is referred to as Mrs. de Winter or in the screenplay as simply “I”) is a device in which to have the viewer, in essence, assume the role, her subjugation is more reflective of Hitchcock’s attitudes toward women. Hitchcock is famous for creating memorable roles for actresses, yet those characters are often soulless, mistreated or a canvas on which men paint their obsessions. Joan Fontaine’s role—though perfectly acted—manages to be all three at once.

Maxim is clearly obsessed with her beauty. His reasons for marrying her involve admiration for her outside appearance. It quickly becomes clear that Maxim has little to no interest in actually knowing his new bride. Mrs. de Winter is mistreated by nearly everyone in the film—from the aristocratic widow who hires her as a travelling companion early in the film, to the staff at Manderley, and Maxim himself who lies about his true nature when Mrs. de Winter confronts him. Finally, is there anything more soulless than being a character without a name? I completely see the value in having the audience assume Mrs. de Winter’s role in the film—it’s quite suspenseful to be in the dark along with a protagonist, thus making us even more desperate to uncover the mysteries of the story—but the character is ultimately treated as if she were formless putty. She can assume no shape of her own; outside hands—usually a man’s—must create one for her. Mrs. de Winter is merely a prop for Hitchcock to toy with.

Many of Hitchcock’s women have makeovers within the film, and the makeover scene is most telling of the director’s attitude toward Mrs. de Winter. She manages to stage a costume ball at Manderley, and in an effort to please Maxim, Mrs. de Winter wears the dress of Caroline de Winter—an ancestor Rebecca previously dressed up as. Hitchcock implies that the only way Mrs. de Winter can have any sort of life is by imitating a ghost. When Maxim sees her, he is rejected—he knows that his new bride is no substitute for the old one. A ghost (two, if you really look at it) has more power and personality than a live person. At this point in the film, Mrs. de Winter is contemplating suicide (and basically encouraged to do so by Mrs. Danvers), but a twist in the plot keeps the story moving forward. The poor girl can’t even end her life on her own terms—she only exists to be manipulated by the story and the director who unfolds it.

Mrs. Danvers herself has her identity subjugated. Throughout the film, it is implied she is a lesbian (you can thank the Hays Code for not allowing any sort of mention of homosexuality to be overtly mentioned into films). In Rebecca’s most fantastically creepy scene, Mrs. Danvers gives Mrs. de Winter a tour of Manderley. The housekeeper has kept her mistresses bedroom completely intact as if it were a holy shrine. Mrs. Danvers especially fawns over Rebecca’s old undergarments and negligees, at one point holding them to her cheek. It is revealed that Rebecca even called Mrs. Danvers by a pet name, “Danny” (and I think it is also notable that Mrs. Danvers’ first name also remains unuttered), which is about as subtle as a piano being dropped from a skyscraper in implying a Sapphic relationship between the two women. Mrs. Danvers’ relationship with Rebecca is portrayed as an obsession and predatory in nature. Hitchcock shows the character not an iota of sympathy. Mrs. Danvers is the clear villain of the film, and her lesbianism (yeah, I’ll push Mrs. Danvers right on out of the closet) is made the source of her madness.

In Rebecca, women are feared. In many ways, the strongest female character in the film doesn’t occupy a single frame. Rebecca haunts the whole film (from the first line “Last night, I dreamt of Manderley…”) to the moment when her fate is revealed (I don’t mean to spoil it for you, but Rebecca dies under malicious circumstances at the hands of a man). The more we learn about Rebecca, the more we learn that she had a mind and a personality of her own—and one that frequently clashed with Maxim’s ideal—and feel free to substitute Hitchcock himself here—of what a wife is expected to be like. Is it any surprise that she is dead?

Fear of women by suppressing their identity shows up time and again in Hitchcock’s work—from the neglected girlfriend Grace Kelly plays in Rear Window, the tormented and objectified Kim Novak in Vertigo and the misguided independent Janet Leigh played in Psycho, who represents the point at which female heroines were given no guarantees to even make it to the ending of a movie. (Oh, and let’s not even mention the whole bevy of “mother” and gender issues raised in Psycho—that’s another blog entry for another time.) Hitchcock’s attitudes towards women undoubtedly led to a period of inspired and unparalleled creativity in filmmaking—and Rebecca is the launchpad for these obsessions—but is his attitude a healthy one?

In the end, we have the might of David O. Selznick to thank for immortalizing Rebecca with a Best Picture Oscar. Selznick provided the platform on which Hitchcock became established in Hollywood. It’s fair to say that without Rebecca, we never would have got the superlative output of films Hitchcock made in the 1950’s. And perhaps I’m being a little too harsh on the director. By all accounts he was a loving husband and father to a daughter. I do think his films offer a peek into his subconscious, and also reflect the darkness in our own.

In a decade that would be haunted by war, death and evil, the Best Picture winners of the 1940’s would each be a litmus test to the darkness man holds within. If the great theme of the 1930’s films was there’s no place like home, Rebecca suggests that home is no place one would want to be. Oscar rarely flirts so aggressively with the dark side, and while none of the films in honored in the decade would be as bleak, Rebecca is the first Best Picture winner to scrape beneath the surfaces of the simple morals of the previous decade to find only ash and decay.


Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders (and look out for Hitchcock’s signature cameo toward the end of the film near a phone booth after Sanders makes a call)

Studio: Selznick International Pictures (distributed by United Artists)

Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Cinematography), out of 11 nominations (Best Director—Hitchcock, Best Actor—Olivier, Best Actress—Joan Fontaine, Best Supporting Actress—Judith Anderson, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Black & White), Best Editing, Best Score, Best Special Effects)

NEXT BLOG: How Green Was My Valley

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

1930's (and '20's) in Review: Ranking the first dozen Best Pictures

With every decade in the bag, I'm going to post a ranking of the Best Pictures, from best to worst. Since there was only two Best Picture winners in the 1920's, they get lumped in with the ten from the '30's.

Here goes:

1. It Happened One Night (1934)--Cinematic perfection from Frank Capra. The perfect romantic comedy. Deserving of its Oscar sweep.

2. Gone With the Wind (1939)--America's most popular film also happens to be a very solidly made epic with a lead performance from Vivien Leigh that will endure for all time. Stereotypes aside, the film is necessary viewing.

3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)--Powerful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel. The anti-war message is just as strong as the entertainment value the film provides. The war sequences hold up after 80 years.

4. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)--Well made biopic with an excellent performance from Paul Muni. The film effectively frames the debate between using art for commercial reasons or social change.

5. Wings (1927)--Surprisingly entertaining WWI set-drama. Though a silent film, Wings set many templates that other Oscar winners would follow.

6. You Can't Take it With You (1938)--Frank Capra adapts a Pulitzer-Prize winning play with a message valuing community and individuality over commercialism.

7. Grand Hotel (1932)--Ensemble drama featuring six main characters whose lives intersect at a posh Berlin hotel.

8. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)--Musical biopic about impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. The recreations of his acts distract from the story but are the most interesting parts of the film.

9. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)--Huge historical inaccuracies undermine an otherwise solid adventure film. Fantastic production values though.

10. Cimarron (1931)--Unforgivable racism mars a very interesting story about the Oklahoma land rush. Hammy acting from the male lead doesn't help. The opening sequence is spectacular though.

11. Cavalcade (1933)--Boring adaptation of a Noel Coward play that is more concerned with being a checklist through historical events than creating interesting characters.

12. The Broadway Melody (1929)--Amateurish early talkie that gained the Best Picture Oscar more for its technical innovations than any quality performances, direction, or story.

I'm also going make a judgment on who was the best actor, actress, and director base on their work in the Best Picture winners:

Actor of the Decade: Clark Gable. Made three Oscar winners better and was enormously popular.

Actress of the Decade: Vivien Leigh. She's probably the biggest reason Scarlett O'Hara and Gone With the Wind have such enduring popularity. Apologies to Luise Rainer, who won two Best Actress awards in the decade.

Director of the Decade: Frank Capra. Almost singlehandedly made Columbia Pictures a major studio and was the tastemaker for the decade. Won Best Director three times and Best Picture twice.

Studio of the Decade: MGM. You can't argue with five of its films winning Best Picture Oscars.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gone With the Wind: American Duality

What to make of the film which is unquestionably—for better or worse—the most popular ever made in the history of American cinema?

Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning. As is typical of the mega-epics of yore, there is an overture featuring some of Max Steiner’s themes in the score, followed by a two sentence preface: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…” Okay, nothing special so far. Dreams remembered, lost civilizations, cavaliers, stories in books—these are the things epic films are made of; it’s what you expect to see watching a film like Gone With the Wind. But then Steiner’s score swells with “Tara’s Theme” and the single most gargantuan “G” ever written scrolls onto the screen from the right of the frame. The letters, filling the screen, spell GONE WITH THE WIND, but they scream “THIS IS THE BIGGEST FUCKING MOVIE EVER MADE!!!” On the initial screening of the film the audience burst into rapturous applause at this sight—and I think even the most jaded of filmgoers will admit to being swept away by the opening credits of Gone With the Wind.

The film’s opening title sequence has only one legitimate rival in terms of sheer power—the Star Wars films, each opening with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and then that cacophonous first chord in John Williams’ score and the yellow STAR WARS title filling the outer space on the screen. Not at all coincidentally, Star Wars is the only serious rival to Gone With the Wind in terms of being America’s most popular motion picture.

There’s a lesson here: If you’re making a movie and you aspire it to be the biggest fucking movie ever made, you might as well announce it as such in the main titles. David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, most certainly held this ambition. Everything in Gone With the Wind is a superlative; nothing is small in this film.

I’ll do a quick rundown of how monstrous the production of the film was:

• Margaret Mitchell’s novel—a tome at well over 1,000 pages—was purchased by Selznick for a then-record price of $50,000. Selznick once thought the film would have to be split into two pictures.

• The screenwriting process was laborious, and passed through the hands over a dozen authors. When Sidney Howard, the credited screenwriter, turned in his first draft, the resulting film would have been 5½ hours long. (Some Oscar trivia—Howard was the first person to receive an Oscar posthumously. He was killed in a tractor accident on his farm before the film opened.)

• Selznick ran through three principal directors—George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and Sam Wood (who filled in for Fleming after he became too ill to work). At one point, five units were shooting footage.

• Eventually, over 500,000 feet of film were shot for Gone With the Wind. The final cut was whittled down to merely 20,000 feet.

• The film has over 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras.

• The budget to create the women’s costumes alone was over $100,000. Additionally, it cost $10,000 to launder them over the course of the shoot.

• Each of the principal roles—Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes—each had challenges to overcome before Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard were settled on.

• The casting of Scarlett involved 1,400 actresses interviewed, 400 giving readings, dozens being screen tested over a nearly two year process before Vivien Leigh—an out of left field candidate—won the role.

• Conversely, Clark Gable was always Selznick’s choice for Rhett. Gable was indisputably the most popular star of the 1930’s, but he hated “women’s pictures” and thought the film would hurt his image. He agreed to do the film only after he received a bonus of $50,000 to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry Carole Lombard. His studio, MGM, was also paid off and given distribution rights for the film.

• Olivia de Havilland, under contract with Warner Brothers, had to plead with Jack Warner’s wife to let her out of her contract.

• Leslie Howard felt he was too old to play Ashley (in Mitchell’s novel, Ashley is 21; in real-life, Howard was 46), so Selznick appeased him by giving him a producer’s credit for the film Intermezzo.

• The final budget for the picture was $3.9 million dollars

• When the film held its premiere in Atlanta on December 15th, 1939, the Governor of Georgia declared it a state holiday.

For all the staggering human costs that went into the creation of the film, the reason Gone With the Wind has endured in popularity is because of its main character, one Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, without Vivien Leigh, the character wouldn’t be. This is a case where actress and character become unmistakably one. Although Leigh would win another Best Actress Oscar (as the equally iconic Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire), through Scarlett, she achieved immortality. I have to admit—it’s a hell of a role, and Leigh is peerless in the part.

Scarlett also represents another theme of Gone With the Wind from which the film is inseparable: duality. My mother lists Scarlett O’Hara as one of her heroes (along with Lucille Ball and—yuck—Barbie, and this is where I thank God I am male). She frequently watches my nearly six year-old niece, and I asked my mother if she thought Scarlett was a good role model for her granddaughter. “Absolutely,” she replied, without hesitation. I also have an infant daughter, and Scarlett O’Hara is the last person I would wish for her to be like. Look at the facts—Scarlett, in the very opening scene of the film, is surrounded by beaus, and she flirts, pouts, toys, and plays them off another to get what she wants.

Throughout the film, her desire is to win over Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett considers an ideal match because of his social class and breeding. Although Ashley loves another woman (Melanie)—and compared to the other men in the film he is seen as weak and effeminate (why Scarlett would continue to want him when she has Rhett right there for the taking is mindboggling), Scarlett knows no bounds in her pursuit of him. She steals away other men already engaged to be married (twice, once from Ashley’s sister and once from her own). Scarlett lies, Scarlett cheats, and Scarlett loves to be at the center of scandal—which she often deliberately creates. Her entire friendship with Melanie exists solely because Scarlett hopes to one day steal Ashley from her (Melanie’s kindheartedness and willingness to turn a blind eye to Scarlett’s desires for Ashley act as a perfect foil to Scarlett’s character). Even when she is married to Rhett, she keeps a picture of Ashley in her vanity and her inability to completely close her feelings off to him dissolves their marriage and indirectly leads to the death of their daughter, Bonnie Blue (who Scarlett could care less about). Scarlett only feels validated through the eyes of another man, and her need for love from an unattainable man is her tragic flaw.

However, for all of Scarlett’s scheming and pettiness—and believe me, Scarlett O’Hara is the undisputed heavyweight champion of scheming and pettiness—I have to admit that my mother may be right. Scarlett O’Hara can be an excellent role model. For as much as Scarlett needs to be defined by her relationships with men, she also needs to adopt the role of a man to survive. The film is haunted by the backdrop of the Civil War. The men in the film—even eventually Rhett, the mercenary—are off fighting the war while the women are charged with sustaining their way of life. Although marriage brings Scarlett away from Tara to Atlanta with Melanie, when the city finally falls, Scarlett has but one desire—which is in many ways, the great, overarching theme of all 1930’s cinema: to return home.

Her journey is fraught with peril. First, she needs to help Melanie deliver her baby—for which neither she nor her servant Prissy (more on this scene a bit later) are entirely capable of doing. She must do this alone, as all of the doctors in the city are tending to the Confederate soldiers defending the besieged city (the slow, deliberate pull back as Scarlett is desperately searching for help among hundreds and hundreds of dying and wounded is the most effective shot in the film). She then enlists Rhett’s help to escape with Melanie, Prissy, and the baby as Atlanta literally burns to the ground (this famous sequence was achieved when Selznick ordered a set-to-be-destroyed soundstage on the MGM backlot burned to the ground at the cost of $25,000). Rhett though, ultimately abandons the women—he finally leaves to join the Confederate soldiers—leaving Scarlett to navigate a perilous road back to Tara. Once there, Scarlett finds her home ravaged—her mother is dead, her father is lame and both the home and crops are in disarray (the Wilkes home, Twelve Oaks, has been razed). She must also contend with Union soldiers intent on rape and pillage (and later, carpetbaggers), and the first half of the film concludes with her famous, defiant line: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

I gotta admit—Scarlett, in that moment is absolutely empowering.

Scarlett’s choices from then on—and she only gets nastier in the second half of Gone With the Wind— are ultimately motivated with the intent of protecting Tara. Scarlett proves to be as stupid and petty as one of today’s reality television starlets (imagine Kim Kardashian as a Civil War debutante) but also as ruthless and intelligent as some women who have ascended into political office (I think Indira Gandhi would be the best comparison). I don’t think Scarlett O’Hara is ever compassionate enough to be called a feminist icon (I think Melanie and Mammy best represent those ideals in Gone With the Wind), but she is most certainly a character of tremendous and enduring power. Even when you hate her—and in Gone With the Wind I hated her often—you can’t ever pry your eyes from Scarlett. She is the reason that the popularity of the film has never waned and will continue to endure. A millennia from now, humans will know of Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett is not the only Janus-faced element of Gone With the Wind. Unsurprisingly, a film this large is littered with complications. First off—the two halves of the film may as well be two entirely different movies. Part One is chiefly concerned with the fall of Scarlett O’Hara and the demise of Tara. Scarlett’s journey mirrors the fall of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and the beginning of the decline of the genteel civilization in the South. The second half of the film is concerned with Scarlett rebuilding her home and regaining her wealth, just as the South is entering Reconstruction. The first half of the film is leaner, tighter, and more purposeful. The second half of the film is far less focused, episodic, and prone to melodrama. Gone With the Wind is essentially two separate films telling entirely different stories.

Selznick strove to present a historically accurate picture as possible, but there are many crucial details glossed over. Scarlett and Melanie come off the best once the war begins rolling in the film. When Scarlett becomes the de facto head of both Tara and Twelve Oaks, she assumed a role many other women in the South were forced to undertake. Her role as a business owner is also not radical. Yet Selznick omits any mention of the darker elements of Reconstruction. The “meeting” Ashley and Scarlett’s second husband attend is for recruitment into the Ku Klux Klan, but that name is never once uttered in the film, as is any KKK iconography.

In fact, race is the single most divisive issue—and will always be so—in Gone With the Wind. From the opening credits, every slave is presented as a happy one. The principal black characters in the film—Mammy, Prissy, Pork, and Big Sam, slaves all—are never once shown as unhappy with their situation in life and are all quite eager to please their masters. In the film, the African-American characters are presented as subservient and wholly dependent on whites, thus reinforcing centuries-old stereotypes. The implied white supremacy in the film is never more apparent in the scene where Scarlett slaps a hysterical Prissy into submission (and of Prissy, Malcolm X is said to have cringed when actress Butterfly McQueen “went into her act”). Hell, even the black female characters aren’t given proper names, only titles that describe their job—“Mammy”—or their disposition—“Prissy”. In the world of Gone With the Wind, the black characters are given names that reflect a lack of identity.

I think another uncomfortable truth accounting for the popularity of the film is that audiences want to see the African American characters presented as inferior. The popularity of the film has never diminished over time, and the film has never been cut or altered from its original presentation. Would the film really be different if say, the slapping sequence was cut? When the film made its debut in Atlanta, the city was all too eager to recreate the Reconstruction era. Storefronts were made over with temporary antebellum architecture, a gala costume ball, a parade down Atlanta streets lined with Confederate flags, were part of the debut festivities—which President Jimmy Carter recalled as “the biggest event to happen to the South in my lifetime.” However segregation was the rule in the theater, where Hattie McDaniel was prevented from attending the premiere with her cast mates by Jim Crow laws (Clark Gable threatened to boycott, but McDaniel urged him to go, and a young Martin Luther King Jr. attended the cotillion ball for the film as a guest of his father). Many audiences are guilty of falling in love with the romanticized South presented in the film yet completely overlook or disregard that Gone With the Wind is racist.

Racist though the film may be—it is a bit folly to dismiss Gone With the Wind as entirely such. Again, there is a bit of duality at work here. Look at Mammy, and the actress who played her, Hattie McDaniel. While Mammy is representative of the stereotypical female slave who worked inside a plantation, the film makes no bones about who really keeps Tara running. Mammy is also the only character to stand up to Scarlett—and the only character that can see through her bullshit. Scarlett and Mammy share a considerable amount of power. Mammy is also allowed to show flashes of personality outside of her role. A brief, but key scene has Rhett (who is easily the most progressive character in the film) giving Mammy a red silk slip—which she outwardly rejects but inwardly loves. Later, Mammy reveals that she wears the silk underneath her dress wherever she goes, and the slip represents a fiery personality underneath the mask she wears for Scarlett. Because the silk is also a gift from a white man, it does signify that there is at least one white person who sees Mammy as an equal, as a human being.

The character won Hattie McDaniel the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar in any category. McDaniel continues to exert influence among black actors today. Mo’Nique, the most recent winner in the Supporting Actress category, thanked McDaniel in her acceptance speech. At the Oscar ceremony in 1940, McDaniel represented not only the first black actor to be nominated, but the first black person to attend the ceremony. In her acceptance speech, McDaniel said:

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.

With her victory, McDaniel opened the doors to minority performers. I think there is a small measure of justice that for all of the racist and stereotypical prejudices within Gone With the Wind, McDaniel’s performance shattered the barrier to African-Americans. Her Oscar ensures that Gone With the Wind is a crucial part of black history, and in a small way serves as a counterbalance to the negative stereotypes contained within the film.

More than anything, Gone With the Wind represents an America filled with complications and contradictions. For as much as Selznick wanted to portray an idyllic civilization of “Cavaliers and Cotton fields”, the characters in the film are far from perfect and the drama within their lives is not easily resolved. For as much as the many fans of the film buy into the fantasy created by Scarlett and Rhett and Tara, they represent a reality that a Hollywood film rarely showed. As much as one may think Scarlett is a spoiled princess, they must also see her as a survivor and a woman of tremendous power. For as much as Gone With the Wind is about the life during the Civil War, it is also about life during the Reconstruction. For as racist as the film is, Hattie McDaniel’s performance represents a small step toward barriers being eroded for African-Americans.

I’ve often tried to reconcile how a film so offensive and divisive could be the most popular ever in our country? What does that say about us? Do women really wish that they could be exactly like Scarlett O’Hara? Do we, as a country, see our complicated past as idyllic and nostalgic? Do we look past the stereotypes in the film because we may, at our cores, condone racism? For as much as Gone With the Wind is about opposites, it is far too easy to dismiss the film because of its flaws. The film, in many ways, has held a mirror up to the face of our country and forced us to examine our own flaws. Scarlett should be admired because she ultimately becomes more real than a spoiled southern belle. Nostalgia becomes folly. And the ugly racism in the film serves as a reminder of exactly what is completely unacceptable in society today, and that the struggle to eradicate prejudice is ongoing.

We live in a complicated, two-faced country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our most popular film ever reflects the duality of its citizens.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen

Studio: Selznick International Pictures (distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Total Oscars: 10 (8 competitive: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress—Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress—Hattie McDaniel, Best Adapted Screenplay—Sidney Howard (posthumous), Best Color Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Interior Decoration; 1 honorary—William Cameron Menzies for use of color photography; 1 technical achievement—Don Musgrave) out of 13 nominations (Best Actor—Clark Gable, Best Supporting Actress—Olivia de Havilland, Best Special Effects, Best Score, Best Sound Recording). Selznick was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award that year.