Sunday, October 5, 2014

Classic Films in Context: Gone With The Wind

I decided to write this post about Gone With The Wind after I read “When It Comes To ‘Gone With The Wind,’ Do Kids Today Give A Damn?” at the NPR Web site. The article suggests that the 1939 Best Picture Winner hasn’t aged well. The author of the piece, Neda Ulaby interviewed 13 students studying film at Georgetown University. Ulaby assures us these students are “serious about movies” to support her thesis.

Not so critical analysis
Apparently the fact that the story took place during a time when it was legal to own slaves makes the film unworthy of any respect or a full viewing according to Georgetown film student Mike Minahan. This is what Minahan has to say about Gone With The Wind: “Everything I’ve seen about it says it, like, glorifies the slave era ... and I dunno, what’s the point of that? I don’t see that as a good time in history. ... like, oh, sweet, a love story of people who own slaves.” Notice the “Everything I’ve seen about it” portion of the quote. Did Minahan watch the film in its entirety? Is he basing his opinion, one that Ulaby says most of his fellow Georgetown film students agree with, on the opinions of others? Shouldn’t a film student be more critical in his analysis? Films are like history; they need to be put into context.

It’s Scarlett's point of view
We see Gone With The Wind through Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivian Leigh) point of view. If the film were told through Mammy’s (Hattie McDaniel) point of view, for example, we’d have an entirely different film. But it’s Scarlett’s movie and it’s her story warts and all. Is plantation life romanticized in the film? Yes, but then again, it’s pretty typical for the past to be thought of fondly in the face of some pretty stark reality (like the American Civil War); it’s human nature. What Gone With The Wind makes clear is that war is always tragic and that personal relationships (and land if you’re Gerald O’Hara) are all that really matter in life. Unfortunately for Scarlett, she learns that lesson too late.

A well-worn epic
From a technical aspect, I was amazed at how well Gone With The Wind has aged. The fact that a film released in 1939 can hold its own against contemporary epics is in itself remarkable. Ernest “Ernie” Haller’s Oscar-winning cinematography is quite compelling. Who can forget the shot of Scarlett at the Atlanta train station as she walks among the wounded and the dead. At first the camera is close on Scarlett and you only see a few men on the ground. But then the camera pulls back and the number of the wounded and dead on screen is staggering. It’s one of the greatest visuals in all of cinema. And what about the scene of people fleeing Atlanta? How they were able to choreograph the action with star Leigh, not a double, moving against the crowds and running in front of horses and carriages we’ll never know. But on the screen it’s terrific.

Life is troubling
One of the other aspects that the film students find troubling is the scene of marital rape. It is a troubling scene, but put in context it’s true to the marital conventions of the time. The relationship between Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett is indeed a complicated one. I wonder if the same students would refuse to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie or Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter?

Award-winning performances
The performances in Gone With The Wind are solid. Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett is fresh, lively, and contemporary. The same can be said for Gable’s portrayal of Rhett. In the hands of Olivia de Havilland (still with us at 97!), Melanie Hamilton is not quite the “mealy mouth ninny” that Scarlett accuses her of being. And who can forget Hattie McDaniel as Mammy? She goes toe-to-toe with Scarlett, always speaks her mind, and is nobody’s fool. When did a black actress get as much screen time as McDaniel did prior to 1939?

Don’t know much about history
My background in educational publishing makes me suspect that today’s film students may be the product of political correctness gone amok. When I worked in school library publishing, we routinely airbrushed cigarettes, cigars, and pipes out of the hands and mouths of historical figures like FDR and pop culture icons like James Dean. We were told that school librarians wouldn’t buy our books if we left these photos intact. This is also the case in contemporary textbook publishing. Instead of explaining that in the not so distant past people didn’t think smoking was a serious health issue and open up a dialogue on the subject, it’s ignored entirely. For many, the history they’ve been taught has been sanitized to the point where it’s not history at all, but instead someone’s fantasy of what history should be. It’s also disturbing the way we in the 21st century look down on people in the past with a superior attitude. As if we would have been any different in our thinking than Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie had we been born during the 19th century.

They’ve got a lot of living to do
What the NPR piece revealed is a group of film students who are unwilling to look at what might be disturbing or upsetting to their worldview. This seems contrary to the whole point of studying film, which is in many ways, studying our history. Perhaps those 13 Georgetown film students need to experience a little more of life to have an appreciation for a classic like Gone With The Wind. And frankly, I do give a damn.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deanna Durbin: Winnipeg’s Sweetheart

This post is part of the O Canada blogathon hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. For more on famous Canadian movie folk, see the link at the bottom of this post.

Deanna Durbin sang on
Eddie Cantor’s radio show.
Canada born
Deanna Durbin was born on December 4, 1921 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. In 1923, Durbin’s parents moved to Southern California where they raised Deanna and her older sister Edith. From a young age, Durbin’s extraordinary singing voice was recognized and nurtured. Before long, Hollywood took notice and Durbin was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935.

That other girl singer
At M-G-M, there was another girl singer singed to a movie contract named Judy Garland. The studio starred Durbin and Garland in a short film, Every Sunday (1936). The film was a showcase for the vocal talents of both young women. Garland’s contemporary “swing” style of vocalization contrasted with Durbin’s classical operatic voice. After the film’s release, the studio dropped Durbin from their star roster, but kept Garland. There are a lot of stories surrounding the reason Durbin’s contract was not renewed, but it just appears to have been more of an oversight than the studio preferring Garland.

M-G-M’s loss was Universal’s gain
A mature glam shot from
the 1940s.
When M-G-M didn’t renew Durbin’s contract, she was signed immediately by Universal Studios. Producer Joe Pasternak cast her in her first feature film, Three Smart Girls (1936). It was a box office bonanza and is credited with helping to save the struggling studio from bankruptcy. The film was so popular that it made Durbin an overnight sensation. She, along with Mickey Rooney, received a juvenile Oscar for her film work in 1938.

International superstar
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Durbin was one of the biggest and most beloved movies stars in the entire world. She was one of Anne Frank’s favorites; Frank had a picture of Durbin on her bedroom wall, in the home where the Frank family hid during World War II. When Durbin received her first screen kiss in 1939’s First Love, from Robert Stack, the press dubbed it “the kiss heard around the world.”

One of  Durbin’s most enduring films
Highest paid woman in the world
By the time Durbin celebrated her 21rst birthday, she was the highest paid woman in the United States and the highest-paid female movie star in the world. At her peak, she was earning $400,000 per picture. One of the best movies she made during this period was the romantic comedy It Started With Eve (1941), costarring Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings. As Durbin matured, she wanted to tackle more serious roles. She starred in the dark murder-mystery Christmas Holiday (1944), based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham. The dark-themed movie paired her with screen newcomer, Gene Kelly. With the innocuous title, Durbin and Kelly fans were probably expecting a musical rather than a noirish, melodrama. To many, it proved Durbin could act and if given the proper vehicle, she might have transitioned to more challenging adult roles. Even though Christmas Holiday was a box office success, Durbin’s fans preferred her in lighter fare. Durbin followed up Christmas Holiday with Can’t Stop Singing, her one and only Technicolor film. The musical, featuring a score by Jerome Kern with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, was a box office smash. It broke all records at New York’s Loew’s Criterion Theatre between December 1944 through January 1945.

Durbin puts her hands and feet in cement
at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
Little Miss Fixit no more
During the rest of the 1940s, Durbin continued to star in successful light romantic comedies. Even though the quality of her films wasn’t always the best, she was still a big box office draw and her fan club was the largest in the world. Growing tired of the poor scripts Universal was giving her, Durbin later declared, “I couldn't go on forever being Little Miss Fixit who burst into song.” By 1949, Durbin turned her back on Hollywood and decided to retired at the ripe old age of 28. She married for a third time to producer-director Charles David and moved to France where she lived a very private life as wife and mother.

Gene Kelly and Durbin in
Christmas Holiday
Leave me alone!
Durbin turned down numerous offers to star in films at other studios. Bing Crosby wanted her to costar with him in Top o’ the Morning and A Connecticut Yankee in King Aruthur’s Court (both 1949). Pasternak, now at M-G-M, tried to lure Durbin to his new studio. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted Durbin to star in the Broadway production of Oklahoma! Durbin was Alan Jay Lerner’s first choice to play Eliza Doolittle in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. For years the offers would come and Durbin would turn them down. She shunned the press for decades. She reluctantly agreed to an interview in 1983.


My Deanna Durbin Coffee Mug
Lasting legacy
In spite of Durbin’s disillusionment with Hollywood, she left a body of work that documents her extraordinary vocal range. Combined with her natural acting abilities, Durbin endeared herself to a generation of moviegoers. Today, Durbin’s films might seem corny and formulaic, but even in her most pedestrian vehicles, her warmth and charm shine through. Deanna Durbin may have turned her back on Hollywood and all that came with screen stardom, but her fans never turned their backs on the girl with the golden voice.


Some Durbin essentials:

Three Smart Girls (1936)
One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937
Mad About Music (1938)
That Certain Age (1938)
Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)
First Love (1939)
It Started With Eve (1941)
Can’t Help Singing (1944)

See and hear Deanna sing “I Love To Whistle” from Mad About Music


Portions of this blogpost appeared earlier on December 4, 2010, Ms. Durbin’s 89th birthday.

Can’t get enough of Canadian movie folk? Click here for more interesting posts in the O Canada blogathon!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” to screen October 14, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

A Personal Favorite
Considered Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is also the only film he ever shot entirely on location. Hitchcock picked Santa Rosa, CA, because it exemplified, at least it did in 1942, the ideal American town. Film critic Bosley Crowther said in his review of the film, “The flavor and ‘feel’ of a small town has been beautifully impressed in this film by the simple expedient of shooting most of it in Santa Rosa, Calif.”

No Prima Donnas
One of the reasons Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favorite was due to the cast. Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton, although movie stars, weren’t prima donnas. The director was impressed with Wright’s professionalism and preparation for her role. Cotton thought Hitchcock was one of the easiest directors he ever worked with. The two hit it off from the start and remained great friends for the rest of their lives. The rest of the supporting cast, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Hume Cronyn, and MacDonald Carey were all pros, with Cronyn, prior to this film, a stage actor, made his movie debut in Shadow of a Doubt. He too, along with his wife, Jessica Tandy (Tandy would  appear in The Birds some 20 years later.) remained friends with Hitchcock for the rest of his life.

Teresa Wright
Idolizing Uncle Charlie
When Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) travels west to visit his sister and her family, the sleepy town of Santa Rosa is never the same. Handsome and debonair, Uncle Charlie is idolized by his young niece Charlene “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) who has become disenchanted with her small-town life. Uncle Charlie represents glamour and excitement to young Charlie and she craves his attention.

Word of Mouth
As word spreads about a man they call the Merry Widow murderer, Charley suspects that he and her beloved uncle to be one in the same. But when a government agent investigating the case befriends her, Charley is faced with some tough choices. Does she cooperate, putting her uncle at risk, and upsetting her mother? By getting closer to her uncle, does she put her own life in jeopardy?

Where Evil Lurks
With the help of playwright Thorton Wilder (Our Town) and screenwriter Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis), Hitchcock created a truly suspenseful film. Shadow of a Doubt demonstrates one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: evil can lurk in the most unlikely and innocent of places…within our own towns or cities and in the midst our own families.

Joseph Cotton
Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club; join the discussion
fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.


Backstory: Teresa Wright was nominated for Academy Awards for her first three film roles. It’s a record that stands to this day. She won for her performance in Mrs. Miniver (Best Supporting Actress). Shadow of a Doubt was only her fourth film where she was top billed. Wright was a legitimate stage actress, understudying for Martha Scott who was the original Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She originated the role of Mary Skinner in the Broadway production of Life With Father, the role Elizabeth Taylor played on the screen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: Tinseltown by William J. Mann

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphin, and Madness At The Dawn Of Hollywood,  William J. Mann’s latest nonfiction work centers around the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, a popular director and president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. Taylor was murdered in his home on February 1, 1922. His murder has gone unsolved for more than 90 years, but Mann thinks he knows who did the deed and why.

Taylor was a popular player in the early days of the motion picture industry. He directed 59 silent films between 1914 and 1922. He also acted in 27 films between 1913 and 1915. He directed the legendary Mary Pickford as well as Mary Miles Minter, a serious rival to Pickford, in the silent version of Anne of Green Gables. Taylor was widely respected and beloved by many in the movie business, but he had his secrets. Did these secrets have something to do with his murder?

During the time of Taylor’s murder, the movie industry was under attack by reformers to clean up its act. Many believed that Hollywood was corrupting the youth of America and early movie moguls like Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew feared their empires were in danger. There was talk of censorship and government regulation which no one in the movie business wanted.

William Desmond Taylor
With the growing success of the movie business and its stars came a lot of press scrutiny—the public loved a good scandal—and Hollywood during the 1920s seemed more than happy to oblige. Top stars like Mabel Normand and Wallace Reid had drug problems. Normand was able to beat hers, but Reid, who was addicted to morphine after he suffered a work-related injury, wasn’t so lucky. Then there was the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Arbuckle a top star at the Famous Players studio, was accused of rape and murder. Although Arbuckle was acquitted with the jury saying that the actor suffered a great injustice, the reformers and church ladies organized boycotts of Arbuckle’s (they would eventually boycott Normand’s films as well) films. The public was willing to forgive Arbuckle—they loved his movies—but Zukor, head of Famous Players, decided to cut his loses and release Arbuckle from his contract.

Mabel Normand
Taylor was a great friend of Normand and the two were rumored to be an item, but their relationship was strictly platonic. Normand was the last person to see Taylor before he was murdered and was an early suspect. Other suspects, included Minter, Charlotte Shelby (Minter’s mother), Edward Sands, Taylor’s valet who was recently fired, and Henry Peavey, Taylor’s new valet and the one who discovered the body.

Mary Miles Minter was
in love with Taylor.
The murder negatively affected the careers of Normand and Minter, both major stars during the silent era. Minter’s career basically came to an end after the murder. Zukor afraid of outrage and boycotts from the reformers didn’t renew Minter’s contract. She never worked in films again. Normand survived, but she never enjoyed the success she had before Taylor’s murder. Before Normand died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-seven, she supposedly said “I do hate to go without knowing what happened to poor Billy Taylor.”

Mann’s book has been compared to The Devil In The White City because of its similar narrative style, reading more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. Mann weaves a fascinating tale of early Hollywood and the scandals that almost destroyed the movie business. It’s to Mann’s credit that he doesn’t wallow in the details of the various scandals, but instead focuses on the possible motivations of the individuals involved. I came away feeling that I knew Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, Adolph Zukor, Marcus Lowe, and William Desmond Taylor, so good were Mann’s descriptions of the major players.

Tinseltown is a great read and a must for movie buffs and film historians.

Tinseltown’s publication date is October 14, 2014, but can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” to screen September 9, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, September 9, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller stars Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings. Cummings plays Barry Kane, a Los Angeles aircraft factory worker who suspects the plant has been bombed by a foreign agent. Kane’s best friend is killed in the conflagration and is wrongly accused of sabotage. Along the way, Kane meets a model Patricia (Pat) Martin (Priscilla Lane). The two begin a cross-country journey in an attempt to prove Kane’s innocence and to stop more bombings planned throughout the United States.

All-American cast
Hitchcock chose an all-American cast to move the narrative along at breakneck speed. The film features some amazing set pieces, as well as some great on-location filming at Boulder Dam, New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. The climatic scene atop the Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic in all of cinema.

No looking back
New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther said in his May 8, 1942 review that “Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back.”

Behind the scenes at the Sutton mansion

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” to screen August 12, 2014 at Daystar Center

When: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Venue 1550 at the Daystar Center, 1550 S. State Street

Suspicion (1941) was Alfred Hitchcock’s fourth American film. It’s legendary for several reasons. It’s the first time the director worked with Cary Grant—they would go on to work together on four films—and the second time he worked with actress Joan Fontaine (Rebecca).

The plot
Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a shy young woman who meets playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train. Lina is intrigued by Johnnie and finds herself falling in love  with him, much to her parents chagrin. Lina and Johnnie eventually get married and set up housekeeping in a beautiful home purchased with borrowed money. Lina discovers, after her honeymoon, that her husband is flat broke. When Johnnie asks Lina about her inheritance from her father’s estate, Lina begins to suspect that her husband may be planning to kill her. Did Johnnie marry Lina for her money?

And the Oscar goes to
As already mentioned, this was Grant’s first collaboration with Hitchcock. Hitchcock, like no other director, managed to bring out the darker side of Grant, giving the actor a dimension not seen before. Fontaine who had her breakout performance in Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American film, once again plays a quiet and reserved young woman forced to face some unpleasant situations. For her efforts, Fontaine was rewarded with an Academy Award for the Best Actress of 1942. She is the only actor to win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film.

Probably the most famous glass of milk
in movie history
Great characters
Suspicion is populated with some of the best character actors in the business: Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, and Leo G. Carroll.

After the success of Suspicion, Hitchcock’s name began to appear above the title of each of his films, starting with Saboteur (1942).

Have some Joe and Enjoy the Show!
Before the movie, grab a cup of coffee from Overflow Coffee Bar, located within the Daystar Center. You can bring food and beverages into the auditorium; we even have small tables set up next to some of the seats.

Join the Chicago Film club, join the discussion
The Chicago Film Club is for classic movie fans. Once a month we screen a classic film and have a brief discussion afterward. For more information, including how to join (it’s free), click here. To purchase your ticket in advance, click here. The Venue 1550 is easily accessible by the CTA. Please visit Transit Chicago for more information on transportation options.
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