Tuesday, March 30, 2010
After the massive success and Oscar sweep of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra became the preeminent director of the 1930’s. He picked up a second Best Director Oscar for his work on the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936; and two years later, Capra found that the third time’s the charm in picking up another two Oscars for You Can’t Take it With You. As Capra’s prestige rose, so did that of his studio, Columbia Pictures. You Can’t Take it With You was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. (With greater success comes the choice of material, and Capra had moved past Cosmopolitan magazine for the source material for his films.) You Can’t Take it With You further establishes the Americana values Capra instilled in his work and proved to be incredibly popular.
The story of the film boils down to one central conflict: capitalism and isolation vs. individuality and community. James Stewart plays Anthony “Tony” Kirby, Jr., the son of wealthy banker and investor Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold). Tony has fallen in love with his secretary (called a “stenographer” in the 1930’s), Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). Alice comes from a family of eccentrics, headed by “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Kirby Sr. is buying up property to create a monopoly on a munitions factory by snatching up the surrounding property—the only home he has yet to acquire is Grandpa’s. Both the steadfast determination of Grandpa to not sell (he is not by any means poor) and the budding romance between Tony and Alice threaten to derail the plans of Kirby Sr.
Barrymore does an excellent job of playing a charismatic eccentric. Early in the film, as he is making a significant withdrawal of his investments at the Kirby bank, he charms Poppins, a disgruntled employee, into coming to live with him. Grandpa tells Poppins he can “do whatever he wants”, and he leaves with Grandpa to follow his dream of becoming a toymaker. Spontaneity is common at Grandpa’s home. DaPinna, their ice-delivery man, became a permanent resident of the home one day when he simply decided to not return to work and make fireworks in the basement with Paul, Alice’s father. Alice’s mother, Penny (played by the Supporting Actress-nominated Spring Byington), writes terrible plays. Their other daughter, Essie, is a ballerina. Essie is married to the dim-witted Ed, who sells her homemade candies, distributes flyers, and is an amateur xylophonist. They, along with two servants who have equal status in the home—all live under the same roof, and from time to time, their Russian neighbor Boris serenades them. This is in direct contrast to the uptight Kirby’s, who are the definition of prim and proper.
Although Alice was given the cold shoulder by Mrs. Kirby, when Tony meets Alice’s extended family he is charmed. The star-crossed lovers decide that the two families should meet. Tony, fearing that his parents will put on a phony act in front of his fiancées family, surprises Alice by coming to Grandpa’s house a day early. Chaos ensues, and both families end up in jail because Ed’s flyers are mistaken for Communist propaganda. In jail, Kirby Sr. makes his disdain for Grandpa’s way of life known. Grandpa retorts, “Maybe it'll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”
So in that sentence, the theme of the film is encapsulated. From here out, it is evident that the Tony/Alice relationship is a subplot to the contrasts between Grandpa and Mr. Kirby. In many ways, the love story is the MacGuffin of the film. Instead, Capra presents the audience with the lifestyles of two men. In one corner is Kirby Sr., who is rich, powerful and a successful businessman—but his achievements are in many ways hollow, for he is lonely, his wife is uncaring and he barely knows his own son. In the other corner is Grandpa—who, let it be known, is also rich (though not to the degree of Kirby Sr.)—who lives with his eccentric family and friends. Although even weirdoes would find Grandpa’s extended family strange, they all bring each other joy and happiness. Capra leaves little doubt as to who is the wealthier man. To prove it, an outrageous courtroom sequence follows the jailhouse scene. When bail is set for Grandpa, it is his neighbors who collectively put up the money for bail.
If you can’t figure out where the remainder of the story is going—and it is concerned with the redemption of Kirby Sr.—who haven’t seen many movies. With the conclusion of the film, Capra is telling us that a person can amass all the riches in the world, but if he isn’t true to himself and his friends—and furthermore, friends and true family can only be gained when one embraces their individuality without prejudice—his wealth is hollow.
I think the ideals Capra espoused in his films are often too sentimental and very corny. You Can’t Take it With You is both. However, I look at entertainment today, and there is a permeation of messages reflecting consumerism and material gain. A person is measured by what they own, many forms of entertainment tell us. I look at You Can’t Take it With You (which seems ripe for a remake by Wes Anderson, the collection of individuals in the story are a perfect match for Anderson’s sensibilities and style, and those who love his work will also enjoy Capra’s film), and I’m glad that it a piece of popular entertainment—the film was the highest grosser of 1938—has a substantial anti-consumerist message.
Capra may be corn, and corn may be a bit passé, but sometimes it’s better to be out-of-touch than popular.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938)
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arthur, Spring Byington
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Director) out of 7 nominations (Best Supporting Actress—Spring Byington, Best Adapted Screenplay—Robert Riskin, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Recording)
NEXT BLOG: Gone With the Wind
Monday, March 22, 2010
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Gale Sondergaard, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Vladimir Sokoloff
Studio: Warner Brothers
Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor—Schildkraut, Best Screenplay) from 10 total nominations (Best Director—Dieterle, Best Actor—Muni, Art Direction, Assistant Director, Score, Sound, Writing—Original Story)
I think that biopics—like romantic comedies—are difficult films to do really successfully. Many factors go into the creation of a successful biopic. For example, the more famous the subject, the trickier it is to condense a film from their life story. Jesus or Queen Elizabeth may prove too much subject for a feature film than say a relatively obscure French writer/activist. With that in mind though, a subject needs to have a life, or part of a life, that is worthy of being filmed. It may be hard to condense the achievements of a truly famous person into a film but if the subject is too obscure then will the film have an audience? The case for a filmic life needs to be made.
Biopics also need to be selective. I love a good, long and enveloping biography, but what works well for 1,000 pages can be agony on screen. Also, the film needs to adhere to some sort of structure that works for a feature film. Simply reporting the events of someone’s life may as well be a documentary.
Finally, a biopic needs to be an adaptation. By this I mean that the filmmakers need to know when it is necessary to create composite characters, condense events, or simply leave out details of a life that aren’t crucial to the story the film is telling. A chronological checklist of the events of a life rarely ever makes an interesting film. It may sound like blasphemy, but a good biopic has got to know how to rewrite history into a screenplay. Of course, the filmmakers can’t veer so far as to make up complete and outright lies (which I’ll examine much later when discussing A Beautiful Mind).
Oh, a damn good actor—and not just great but wisely cast—needs to occupy the lead role.
A good biopic is a balancing act, a tightrope walker performing without a net. Not everyone is as gifted, skilled or ballsy to walk on a high wire, and not every biopic can gracefully balance so many divergent elements. Both are rare acts indeed. Thankfully, The Life of Emile Zola hits all of its marks. The film presents the story of a relatively unknown subject—in this case Zola himself, given a searing portrayal by the brilliant Paul Muni—and makes the case for his story to be told by focusing on specific events in Zola’s life connected by a universal theme.
The Life of Emile Zola opens in Paris in 1862. Zola and impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) share a drafty flat, and live the lifestyle of struggling and starving artists. For those familiar with Jonathan Larson’s musical RENT, imagine Zola and Cézanne as a nineteenth century Mark and Roger. Zola needs to get a job to marry his fiancée, Alexandrine (Gloria Holden), so he takes work at a small publishing company. Zola comes into several conflicts at his job—he’s definitely a bit of an anti-authoritarian—and when his indictment of Parisian officials, The Confessions of Claude, is published, the author is fired from his job.
Zola continues to struggle until he strikes up a (non-sexual) relationship with a prostitute. The novel he writes based on her memoirs, Nana, becomes a runaway success. Nana, which is sympathetic and honest in its portrayal of the prostitute, captures the imagination of France and catapults Zola into riches (though the frank depictions of sexual acts such as ménage a trios contained within the text certainly helped to boost sales through both titillation and controversy). Zola continues to write about the hard lives of ordinary French citizens and the corruption present in their government. In a nicely constructed montage by director William Dieterle, the covers of Zola’s books pass by, and both Zola’s sense of activism and burgeoning celebrity are conveyed.
The Zola/Cézanne relationship isn’t the huge driving force of the film, save for one crucial scene. Zola is being awarded the Legion of Honor. He has many guests at his now vast home—in stark contrast to his meager dwellings shared with the painter—though Cézanne is the only guest who seems unhappy. He warns Zola that he is getting “too fat”—in appearance for sure (Muni puts his body through a fantastic transformation, and the makeup in the film convincingly ages him)—but also a gluttony that has shoved Zola’s idealism aside for wealth. Cézanne and Zola never meet again (this is historically accurate), and while never explicitly alluded to, Cézanne’s words haunt and guide Zola’s actions throughout the remainder of the film. The crucial theme of The Life of Emile Zola is expressed thusly: What makes an artist more successful—the amassing of popularity and riches (surely, no artist wants to be starving) or the ability of one’s work to truly make a difference in the world?
Concurrently, a subplot involving Alfred Dreyfus is introduced. Dreyfus was a Captain in the French army of Jewish heritage (note that aside from a very short, brief visual reference, any mention of Dreyfus being a Jew is omitted from the film, though ultimately Dreyfus’ innocence trumps the issue of anti-Semitism in the film). He was wrongfully accused of spilling French army secrets to the Germans, and though there is clear evidence that Dreyfus is completely innocent of any wrongdoings—the film even establishes the true guilty party—Dreyfus is sentenced to a brutal imprisonment on Devil’s Island in what is now Suriname. Joseph Schildkraut won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal, which memorably depicts Dreyfus’ suffering and dignity.
Dreyfus’ wife (Gale Sondergaard) vows to clear her husband’s name. After most of the traditional avenues become closed off to her, she turns to support from the intellectual community in Paris and eventually to Zola himself. Zola is initially reluctant to help, and his true motivations are left up to the viewers to decide, but eventually, Zola becomes Dreyfus’ champion. The rich writer is reminded of his days as an upstart, and this time, he has true authority in which to rebel against in the French army. The military officials in the film are portrayed as uniformly clueless—the Minister of War in the film is quoted as saying, “Books? Books? I don’t read books!”—and they adhere to a strict good-ol’-boy network where the fear of losing face is far more important than exposure of the truth. Zola then publishes his most famous piece of writing, his “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”) letter, published in newspapers across France which declares Dreyfus innocent and accuses the French army of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. The letter is the impetus for Dreyfus’ case to be re-tried, and the climax of the film comes when Zola himself is put on the stand, where he gives an impassioned summation saying:
At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice, before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent! By all that I have won, by all that I have written to spread the spirit of France, I swear that he is innocent. May all that melt away; may my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent.
Zola’s efforts though are for naught, and Dreyfus is not set free. However, it is Zola who rekindles the fire in his belly for justice. In his defense of Dreyfus, Zola is lured out of complacency. Though Zola’s words of “may my name perish” prove prophetic—he becomes exiled from France—ultimately, his passion and quest for the truth win out and Dreyfus is released from prison and his full rank is reinstated. Tragically, Zola dies in an accident involving carbon monoxide poisoning, and he never get to see the man he fought so valiantly for set free.
I didn’t come away from the film thinking it was at all a tragedy. Instead, The Life of Emile Zola becomes a triumph of art used for activism—this is a film that celebrates the power of writing over injustice. It powerfully told me that while a writer may become rich and celebrated, that wealth is hollow unless the art behind it is used to effect positive change—often in the face of what would be easy, what is popular, and what seems impossible.
As a biopic, it met my criteria and then some. I knew nothing of Zola or the Dreyfus Affair before watching the film, and it made the case that this story was absolutely necessary. Muni is almost chiefly responsible for creating a character on film that makes believable changes and grows as a human being, and the script is wisely focused on how Zola’s career unfolds because of the choices he makes. Though the film includes details about his personal relationships and also shows a window into the inner workings of the French government—Zola remains the primary focus of the film. Not once did The Life of Emile Zola feel outdated to me, and while Muni, Dreyfus, and Emile Zola himself have each passed on decades ago, the film makes a case for their story—their lives—to be immortal.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Fanny Brice
Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Actress—Luise Rainer, Best Dance Direction—“A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody”) out of 7 nominations (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Editing)
Art for art’s sake. That is the English translation of the Latin motto encircling Leo the Lion of the MGM logo. For The Great Ziegfeld—not at all coincidentally a MGM picture—that motto has the utmost veracity.
The Great Ziegfeld is one of the more unique films I have ever seen. Nominally, the film is a biopic with early 20th century Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld as its subject. Chronicling the rise and decline of Ziegfeld, the film documents his two loves—the women in his life and the spectacular Broadway productions he masterminded. Ziegfeld’s women—particularly Anna Held—and his shows are in this film rendered with immense artistic quality. Luise Rainer (the oldest surviving Oscar winner who celebrated her 100th birthday this year) makes an astonishing debut as Held, and the recreation of Ziegfeld’s shows simply must be seen to be believed.
The crucial problem with the film is exactly what I liked best about it. Rainer is transcendent as Held and the song and dance numbers are so spectacular that they completely overshadow the story of Ziegfeld. The musical numbers are especially superfluous, ballooning the running time of the picture to an unnecessary three hours and six minutes. Instead having a spotlight shine on Ziegfeld, the film ultimately becomes a celebration of artistry itself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Let’s delve into the biopic part of the picture. The story very much takes a “rise and fall” approach with the life of Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld (Powell) is shown to us at the start of the film as a young man, at odds with his father, who is the headmaster of a music conservatory. “Flo”, as he is referred to, is a carny. His big attraction at the Chicago World’s Fair is the strongman Sandow, but his rival (Frank Morgan, best known as Oz from The Wizard of Oz) is pulling in a far vaster audience with his exotic “Egyptian” girl show. Everything changes when Ziegfeld learns how to exploit the strongman. An elderly woman asks to feel his muscles, becomes titillated, and the light bulb goes off over Ziegfeld’s head. Sandow makes Ziegfeld rich, though he is shown to have a penchant for squandering his fortune.
Eventually, Ziegfeld makes it to Europe. He sees Anna Held (Rainer) sing, and becomes immediately smitten. Penniless though he may be—and facing stiff competition from the Frank Morgan character—Flo is able to woo Held to sign with him. This is one of the more unbelievable (though based on true events) parts of the story, as Held is presented as rational and in control—and smartly played by Rainer. She doesn’t even seem to like Ziegfeld, but yet she too is captivated by him. Ziegfeld makes her a huge star shortly after they return stateside, but he resorts to pulling stunts like telling the press Held takes milk baths to look beautiful in order to keep her name in the papers. If Ziegfeld has a true talent, it is promotion. Though Held objects to being objectified, the pair marries.
Ziegfeld has greater ambitions. He wishes to create a show dedicated to “glorifying the American girl”, and invents his Follies—a song and dance revue featuring beautiful women in spectacular and ornate costumes. It is here that the film veers, as whole parts of Ziegfeld’s Follies are recreated on film. The acts themselves contribute nothing to the screenplay, but costume lovers have a feast of eye candy to drool over, dance lovers will have breathtaking routines to admire, and the music is pleasant to all ears. Besides, there is true, extraordinary talent on display.
Ray Bolger—best known as the Scarecrow (another Oz alumnus) is one of the talents showcased. He plays himself in the film, and if you’ve only seen him as the Scarecrow, you’ll marvel at his rubber-legged tap routine here:
Fanny Brice is also featured in the film—in one of her few film appearances, and when you watch the movie, you’ll understand why Barbara Streisand was an ideal choice to play Brice in Funny Girl (a role for which Streisand won an Oscar). There are also several elaborate musical numbers, the piece de resistance being the performance of “A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody”.
The number begins with Dennis Morgan (dubbed by Allan Jones), singing the song onstage. As the huge curtain slowly opens, a tiered, rotating platform (my wife says it looks like a cupcake) begins to rotate, and girls, clowns, dancers, a big band—nearly every kind of performer imaginable—adds something to the act as the platform slowly spirals upward. At the top is a girl in an ornately feathered gown, then the camera pulls back to reveal the magnificence of the entire set as viewed from the highest seats in the theater. It is a truly breathtaking sequence—the most expensive MGM filmed at the time—and although it has absolutely nothing to do with Ziegfeld’s story (aside from his masterminding of the idea) the magic of performance and spectacle is captured on film. You can view it here:
Eventually, Ziegfeld’s marriage to Held disintegrates—mostly because Flo is a cad who simply cannot keep his dick in his pants. Not with all of the beauties he has ready access to. They divorce, but a scene where Held tries to reconnect with him is achingly played by Rainer.
And now a digression on Luise Rainer, if you don’t mind. The Viennese actress’ greatest admirer was Irving Thalberg, who insisted on casting the relative unknown in The Great Ziegfeld. Her screentime in the film is brief, but the telephone scene has such immediate impact that it sealed a Best Actress victory for her. Rainer won in the subsequent year, playing a mute Chinese peasant in an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. The roles—one chatty, the other silent—proved her incredible range and defined Rainer as a serious actress. Thalberg died in 1937, and with Rainer’s champion gone, she made only a few more films for MGM. Louis B. Mayer tried to typecast her, but Rainer resisted his efforts and insisted on quality material and a higher salary. Mayer’s response: “We made you and we are going to destroy you.” Mayer never got the chance, as Rainer quit the business in 1938. On leaving the business, she commented, “I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo.” She told Mayer: “Mr. Mayer, I must stop making films. My source has dried up. I work from the inside out, and there is nothing inside to give." For Rainer, integrity as an artist meant more than commercial success.
I greatly admire this decision, and the rest of her life was filled with adventure. She had two marriages; helped victims of the Spanish Civil War, helped playwright Bertolt Brecht escape the Nazis by obtaining a visa simply because she “loved his poetry”, studied medicine, lived in New York and Europe, and lived life on her own terms. Perhaps this is what is still keeping Rainer alive today, at the age of 100!
The last third of The Great Ziegfeld follows Flo’s final marriage to Billie Burke (a Follies girl who would most famously be known as Glinda the Good Witch—yet another Oz connection in this film). Burke is played by Myrna Loy, who costarred with Powell in fourteen features (most notably as Dashiell Hammett’s crime solving married couple Nick and Nora Charles, whom Powell and Loy played in The Thin Man and its five sequels). Flo finally finds true and equal companionship, but his financial mismanagement catches up to him and his shows become less popular. Ziegfeld vows to be on top again, and he opens four shows on Broadway at the same time, but the stock market crash of 1929 proves to be his ultimate doom.
Ziegfeld’s story is the story of how to make a buck in America, and I think every successful businessman also needs to be part showman. The story—though presented in a clichéd, predictable manner, has many modern day parallels. I couldn’t help but think of Vince McMahon—owner of World Wrestling Entertainment—in Ziegfeld. Both men have a knack for exploitation, showmanship, manipulation of the media, and self-promotion. Both men rose up out of the shadow their fathers cast, eventually eclipsing them. There is also a whole lot of Flo Ziegfeld in Harvey Weinstein.
His story is also about a love affair with art and spectacle, and the thrill of an audience that delights in being entertained. Though Bolger’s tap dancing, Brice’s comedy, and a huge, twirling platform filled with dozens of singers, musicians and dancers contribute nothing to the forward momentum of Ziegfeld’s story, a film about Ziegfeld’s life would not be whole unless the acts he loved were also celebrated. The story meanders and often stops dead in its tracks to show us yet another recreation of Ziegfeld’s Follies, but there is an awesome power in seeing the past preserved and come to life. Where the rules of screenwriting and filmmaking become broken, art is triumphant. Art for art’s sake indeed.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Director: Frank Lloyd
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin
Total Oscars: 1 (Best Picture) from 8 nominations (Best Director, Best Actor—Gable, Laughton, and Tone—the only time in Oscar history three men from the same film were nominated for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing)
Film has always had a tenuous relationship with history. Often, films that have won the Best Picture Oscar use actual historical events as their subject. Mutiny on the Bounty, though not the first film to be based on historical events, has, over time, come under some scrutiny for its depiction of the actual mutiny on the HMS Bounty on April, 28th, 1789. Frankly, there isn’t much I have to say about the actual film itself. Therefore, this post is a perfect place to examine the relationship between film and history.
First, I’m going to give a brief description of the story of Mutiny on the Bounty. The film tells the story of the crew of the HMS Bounty. Chief among the sailors are Ensign Roger Byam (Tone), an upper-class Briton who volunteered for naval service, first-mate Fletcher Christian (Gable), and the tyrannical Captain Bligh (Laughton), who is so committed to instilling discipline among his crew that he continues to have a man flogged even after he is killed from the punishment. The Bounty is sent to Tahiti to bring back vast quantities of the breadfruit plant, and on the journey, a sharp contrast in philosophy develops between Bligh and Christian. Bligh feels that order and discipline need to be instilled through corporal punishment; Christian feels that Bligh’s methods ultimately demean and demoralize the crew, many of whom are unskilled sailors that have been pressed into service.
The Bounty reaches Tahiti, and the crew spends several months there waiting to harvest a plentiful crop of breadfruit plants. Many of the men have integrated themselves into the society of the island, and both Christian and Byam form relationships with native women. When it comes time to leave, many of the men do not wish to leave, and a few are accused of desertion. Christian objects to the punishment meted out (though desertion is a high crime in the British Navy), and ultimately, he blames Bligh for a decision that leads to the death of the ship’s doctor. Christian gathers about half of the Bounty’s crew—including a reluctant Byam—and they mutiny against Bligh. The Captain and those loyal to him, are sent out into the open sea on one of the Bounty’s lifeboats. Bligh, in an amazing feat of navigation, pilots the lifeboat over 4,000 miles to the nearest landmass, not losing a single sailor. Christian returns with the Bounty to Tahiti.
Ultimately, Bligh returns to England, and leads an expedition back to Tahiti to capture the mutineers. Some of the men are brought back to England and face a court martial, Byam among them. Some are executed, though Byam is spared. The other men abscond with Christian on the Bounty, where they leave (with several Tahitians in tow) to form a perfect society on Pitcairn Island. When Christian reaches Pitcairn, he orders the Bounty burned.
So, while the film is truthful to the fictional historical novel (by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall) on which it is based, it fails to accurately reflect history. Some of the basics are indeed correct. Yes, there was an actual mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and yes she sailed to Tahiti. Even some of the nitpickier details are correct. Gable was (under considerable protest) forced to shave his famous moustache, and he complained the sailor’s uniforms were too effeminate. The recreated Bounty looks fabulous; the production values that went in to the ship are easily the best thing about the film. The milieu is real.
The milieu, however, is the easiest part to get right. Where the film crucially errs is in the portrayal of Bligh. While the crew did mutiny, Bligh was nowhere near the bloodthirsty taskmaster the film makes him out to be. Compared to the far more famous Captains James Cook and George Vancouver, Bligh was far less violent. In the book Past Imperfect—a collection of essays that compares the histories presented in the movies to actual events—historian Greg Dening notes that Bligh flogged 10.9 percent of the Bounty’s crew, compared to 25.6 percent of the crew on Cook’s HMS Resolution and 52.8 percent on Vancouver’s HMS Discovery. Dening suggests that the crew on the Bounty mutinied because unlike the more sanguine Cook and Vancouver—who were content to simply flog and be done with it—Bligh taunted his crew before and afterwards by suggesting that they should be grateful to him for not punishing them more. Bligh instilled feelings of self-doubt and guilt among the men on his ship (on detail the film does get correct), and the state of mind he created was a recipe to brew open rebellion.
Bligh’s appearance in the film is also inaccurate. Paired alongside the dashing Gable as Fletcher Christian, Laughton’s Bligh is cartoonish—a fat, impetuous, mackerel-faced villain. Audiences of the time did not have to strain to see who the film portrays as its hero. In reality, Bligh was not so grotesque, and was actually only thirty-five when he piloted the Bounty, maybe ten years older than the hoi polloi that populated his crew.
There are several other big inaccuracies in regards to actual history. First, the Byam character was never on the Bounty—he is a composite character created by the novelists used as an Ishmael-like narrator. Second, while Frank Lloyd did film in the South Pacific, the actors who portrayed the Tahitians look nothing like Pacific Islanders. There are also little inaccuracies like Bligh and Christian’s father being present at the court-martial of the mutineers, but those are done to give the screenplay dramatic heft. The biggest inaccuracy comes with the ending, where it suggests that Christian leads the Tahitians and Bounty mutineers into an island utopia on Pitcairn Island. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the society formed there quickly denigrated into violent chaos, with rape and murder taking the place of law and order.
To me, that story is quite compelling. Let the facts speak for themselves. It seems like a movie with a story that writes itself. But the reality is that film is art separate from history. Also, the act of recording history is primarily a function of diligent research. The re-creation of history on the silver screen is a far more complicated—and expensive act. A film represents an investment—of money, of politics, of art, and often the three combined.
The one “true” story behind Mutiny on the Bounty is that of MGM’s two driving forces: Irving G. Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg acquired the rights to the Nordhoff and Hall novels, thinking they would be excellent source material for a feature film (and perhaps he was also looking to stage his own sea epic, having been long outclassed by Warner Brothers in pictures about pirates and seafarers). In that regard, Thalberg proved to be prescient. Mayer, however, did not feel that the American public would buy into a film where mutineers are celebrated as heroes. Therefore, the true life story of the HMS Bounty, adapted into an admittedly fictitious historical novel, is further transformed into an epic about common men bravely taking a stand against tyranny.
As both men were Jewish, they were highly aware of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s. Why not re-craft the story into an anti-fascist parable? The film opens with a prelude stating that the mutiny on the HMS Bounty “helped bring about a new discipline, based on mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass on sea.” A nice sentiment, to be sure, but floggings, keelhauling and other forms of corporal punishment are recorded a century after the actual mutiny. Thalberg and Mayer give the audience clean-cut heroes in Christian and Byam, a despicable villain in Bligh, and ultimately, both Christian and Byam come to uphold the values of democracy and liberty over tyranny and cruelty.
In short, the film is a sly piece of political propaganda, with the MGM producers backing the story with the full might of their studio’s technical wizardry. History aside, Mutiny on the Bounty is a thrilling, thinking man’s adventure picture, with three fine actors in lead roles (Gable, Laughton, and Tone were each nominated for Best Actor, which ultimately led to the creation of the Supporting Actor categories) and a hell of a good looking ship sailing in exotic settings. As a movie, it is an absolute success. As history though, Mutiny on the Bounty is a ship with a leaky bottom.
Hollywood is always rewriting history for the sake of good old fashioned entertainment—movies continue to do this today—but I feel that viewers of any “true story” need to take responsibility to separate movie history from actual history.