Archive for Gone With the Wind

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

Gone Gone

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , on June 16, 2020 by dcairns

I’m anti-censorship, but the moment the American president namedropped GONE WITH THE WIND in a speech as a dog whistle to his base, the writing was probably on the wall.

I’m broadly in favour of putting warnings and disclaimers in front of films — I’m in favour of introductions generally, opportunities to add context and educational value. And I’m struck by the mindset of those who find them ridiculous, offensive, unnecessary. I know the good people who run the unofficial Talking Pictures TV Facebook page, and there’s been a lot of discussion there on this subject. TPTV have had occasional complaints upheld for showing material without warnings, so they tend to play it safe and put advisory notices in front of anything that could conceivably offend anybody, to the purple-faced apoplexy of some viewers.

An advisory notice isn’t much of an issue for most of us: it’s quickly over, and then you can enjoy the film, uncensored. I have a hunch about why people get so annoyed.

For a percentage of audiences — I don’t really know how large or small a percentage — old movies are not just nostalgic because they offer a (tinted) window on the past, but they offer a chance to wallow in outdated social attitudes and pretend they’re not outdated. The crowd cheering Fuckface Von Clownstick were largely indifferent to William Cameron Menzies’ skill or Vivian Leigh’s charisma, they were really cheering (a) a time when American cinema could celebrate the Confederacy and (b) the Confederacy. When he went on to mention SUNSET BOULEVARD, they went silent and blank.

Since the pleasure for this brand of time-traveler is projecting themself into the past and enjoying the racist jokes and stereotyping and celebration of white privilege and telling themself that this is the way it ought to be, the appearance of a statement at the start saying, in effect, “These were the bad old days,” must be incredibly irritating and stressful. A tub of vaseline that’s nine parts sand.

Of course, some members of such audiences may well be also enjoying the artistry and beauty and certainly the entertainment value of the films. There’s some overlap. But for my kind of movie-lover, dubious racial or sexual politics or an insulting role for Snowflake or Willie Fung are groan-inducing or discomfiting but useful reminders of bygone attitudes. But it’s quite possible to love the films, but not love certain aspects of them.

Of course, HBO removing GONE WITH THE WIND achieves very little. But I can understand any corporation wanting to be able to say, unambiguously, “We’re not endorsing this film’s nostalgic view of a slave-based economy.” They’re just protecting themselves.

I do want old movies to be available, and ones that people may have heard of are useful gateway drugs to movie appreciation. But I share HBO’s discomfort at the idea of people uncritically consuming racist movies to coddle their own worst leanings. To hell with those people.

Stick a warning in front of it.

HBO, of course, could quietly have stuck a warning in front of GWTW without taking the film down or making any announcements — how long does it take to craft such a thing? –clearly, they wanted to perform an act of public disavowal. It’s a little cynical, in fact. But, so long as there are racists, any public gesture that reminds those people that their views are beyond the pale, unacceptable, obscene, is a little bit of a public service all the same.

Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville