Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

It’s time.

Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.

Part VII of this blog is her coronation.

Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette.  Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.

She could be a nightmare to work with.  She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles.  She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought.  She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”

And no one ever put her in her place.  Not for long, anyway.

She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.

With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from. 

Bette’s got it all.

You want the back of the baseball card statistics? 

One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.

Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations. 

Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material.  If she was in a film, she took it over.  As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”

Two Oscar wins.

The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

You want modern day relevance?

In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”

No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.

And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.

You want the films?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins. 

Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.

Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character.  He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.

This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces.  It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out.  No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role.  (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)

It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.

But Dangerous has its charms.

Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk.  She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering.  He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight.  She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.

He sees through her pain, and they fall in love.  He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.

The catch?  She’s already married.

Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will.  Either way she’ll be free of him.

But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.

Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents.  Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent.  She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.

Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film.  She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.

The problem?

He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.

And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE: The Real Housewives of 1940’s New York

Director Mervyn LeRoy has a stable full of thoroughbreds and he lets them run.

Let’s get this straight right off the top:  I love this film.

We’ll start with James Mason, who plays Brandon Bourne, a rich man who knows all the right people, goes to all the posh places, wears tailored suits but beneath that thin veneer is nothing but a weak, worthless cad.  He cheats on his devoted wife as a matter of course, safe in the knowledge that she will accept—if not believe—his flimsy excuses about where he’s been and his empty promises that each time is the last time.

Gardner and Mason

Though Brand will take up with any beautiful woman who will have him, Isabel Lorrison has her claws in particularly deep.  Ava Gardner is never better as the woman who knows she can snap her fingers and make another woman’s husband come running.  Her part in the film is smaller than the others, but she makes her mark, stealing every scene she’s in.

You’ve got Van Heflin, an excellent actor who isn’t as remembered as he should be playing Mark Dwyer, the man who is everything Brandon Bourne is not, and who longs to show Brandon’s wife what real love and devotion look like.

Stanwyck and Van Helfin

And at the center of it all, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck as the stoically long-suffering wife, Jessie Bourne.  Through all the subplots about Mark Dwyer and his childhood friend, Brand and Isabel, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the different neighborhoods in New York, this is a film about how Jessie Bourne comes to leave her long marriage.  You watch her suffer the small indignities of having to pretend everything is fine with her friends while they all know the truth of her husband’s infidelity.

The film is filled with scene after scene you can feast on:  Brand coming home after staying up all night and groveling to Jessie, who keeps forgiving but not managing to forget.  A reticent Jessie squirms with discomfort when her friend (in one of Nancy Reagan’s first roles) questions her about Brand’s philandering.  Isabel taunting Brand, knowing he won’t be able to give up their trysts.  Mark Dwyer and Jessie falling in love while he makes eggs and mushrooms in her kitchen.  The icy showdown between Jessie and Isabel.

Gardner and Stanwyck face off

It’s all leading to Jessie finally calling it quits.  When Brand comes home to face the music for the final time, I couldn’t wait for Jessie to let him have it.  I wanted this shy, stoic woman to finally let it rip—to scream, list his myriad indiscretions, throw things at him.

But this is not Jessie Bourne’s way.

In one of the best acted scenes of Stanwyck’s long career, her Jessie Bourne listens carefully while Brand lists all the reasons she should take him back one more time.  He’s scared because he knows how far he’s pushed her this time, but he believes—he always believes—that he can find a way to get her back.

When he’s finally finished, Jessie looks at him with dry eyes.  You can hear the tears in her throat, but she’s done all the crying she’s ever going to do for Brandon Bourne. No screaming, no throwing things—Brandon has finally killed all Jessie’s love for him and there’s nothing either of them can do to change it.

Stanwyck kills the delivery, and it’s a damn shame I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of it. This tumbler gif from duchesscloverly will have to do:

East Side, West Side is a well directed, excellently acted melodrama.  It’s the life and love of New York City’s upper crust in the 1940’s.  It’s got everything—love, drama, murder, infidelity.  

It’s a fine film that should be more celebrated and remembered.

Give it a shot.

GILDA: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

You may not know it, but you’ve seen Gilda.

In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins play inmates in the Shawshank State Penitentiary.  In a famous scene, Andy Dufresne (Robbins) slides into the seat behind Red (Freeman) in the prison’s crowded movie theater.  

Red-

Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Red insists, holding up a hand.  His eyes are transfixed on the giant movie screen before him.  “Here she comes.  This is the part I really like.  This is when she does that shit with her hair.”

Oh yeah, I know,” Andy says with a smile.  “I’ve seen it three times this month.”

We then see what has Red and Andy transfixed.  A black and white film, two men in suits walking into a room.

Gilda, are you decent?” one asks.

The camera closes in on a woman who throws her head back and Rita Hayworth’s face fills the frame.

Me?” she asks with a mile-wide smile and anything-but-decent voice.

The prisoners hoot and holler, Red laughs, and Andy smiles.

The Shawshank Redemption is based on the Stephen King novella with the lengthier title Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  As anyone familiar with the film or novella knows, Andy escapes by spending years digging a tunnel out of his cell, which he covers with a poster of Rita Hayworth.

When it came to having a poster of Rita Hayworth hanging on his wall, Andy Dufresne was in good company.  The poster in the film was made from a famous shot of Hayworth taken by Bob Landry for the August 11, 1941 issue of Life magazine.  It became one of the most popular pin-ups of American troops during World War II.  

Andy Dufresne and Rita Hayworth in The Shawshank Redemption

If you watch Gilda—or even just the few seconds of her that show up in The Shawshank Redemption, you know why Stephen King, Andy Dufresne, and millions of G.I.’s picked Rita Hayworth as their preferred pin-up girl.

Rita Hayworth looks good on a poster.  But looking good on a poster is modeling, not acting.

Gilda is a film mostly remembered for two scenes, both showcasing Hayworth’s innate sex appeal.  The first is her opening scene in the film as showcased in Shawshank.  In the second, Gilda dons a black strapless gown and long black gloves and sings “Put the Blame on Mame” to an appreciative crowd.  During the song, she yet again “does that shit with her hair” before slowly rolling down one glove and discarding it.  This one glove striptease—the director didn’t dare risk having Hayworth remove both gloves—shocked and titillated audiences of 1946 as much as anything on the screen today.

Rita Hayworth’s Gilda is seductive and mysterious, equalling loving and hating her one-time lover and eventual husband Johnny Farrell.  She drives Farrell mad by playing the part of a femme fatale, though in truth she only has eyes for him.

Yet outside those two scenes, Gilda drags.  Johnny Farrell and Gilda sparring mostly falls flat, and it’s hard to understand why they love and hate one another so deeply.  The twist that Gilda is not a femme fatale but has been faithful to both her husbands is obvious to the audience and only makes Johnny look like a fool for suspecing her of serial infidelity.

Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale lacks the chilling calculation of Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the confident sex appeal of Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browing in To Have and Have Not.

Part of the problem is that Hayworth’s true talent was dancing, and she doesn’t get to do much of that here.  She was as good a dancer as Ginger Rogers and made two well-danced but mostly forgotten films with Fred Astaire.

But the best stars of the golden age have what the French call je ne sais quoi, an indefinable charisma that you can’t look away from, no matter how bad the film.

Whatever it is that makes audiences want to watch films that are seventy-five years old, Rita Hayworth doesn’t have it.

There’s no shame in it.  Most people don’t.

Mildred Pierce: Crawford at a Crossroads

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Miracle on 34th Street: Believe In Santa

It’s easy to make a passable Christmas movie, but hard to make a great one.  

A great Christmas has to walk a tightrope— sentimental but not saccharine.  Funny but not crude.  Traditional but original.  Appealing to the entire family.  Eminently rewatchable.  

They absolutely have to stick the landing—a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas that has your heart melting and not your eyes rolling.

It’s nearly impossible.

Most Christmas movies are quickly forgotten, around for a season and only half-watched as you munch on popcorn and contemplate gifts for those hardest to buy for on your Christmas list.  They’re enjoyable but predictable, a pleasant two hours passed but quickly forgotten.

But when a filmmaker manages the impossible, the results are magical.

Beloved Christmas movies become part of family Christmas traditions, watched each year as the tree is trimmed or after all the presents are opened.  They are souvenirs of childhood, keys to unlock the sweet nostalgia of good times with the ones we love.

Love Actually.  Home Alone.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  White Christmas.  Christmas in Connecticut.  A Christmas Story.  All make me laugh and feel as warm inside as a Christmas hot toddy.

So does Miracle on 34th Street.

Unnecessarily remade multiple times, the 1947 original is a classic and earned Edmund Gwenn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Santa Claus.

It starts out with a setup that can be seen any night of the week on the Hallmark Channel—skeptical all-work-and-no-play Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her idealistic neighbor Fred Gailey.  Doris hires a man to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Day Parade and soon discovers that he believes he is the real Santa.  Fred is charmed.  Doris is dismayed.

Miracle gives us our first real look at Natalie Wood, who plays Doris’ equally skeptical daughter.  Under her mother’s tutelage, Susan does not believe in Santa Claus or anything else that defies good common sense.  

At only eight years old, one can already see the star that Natalie Wood would become in films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story.  Her Susan is charming as a girl who has not been allowed to indulge in childish fantasies and acts like a little adult.  

Fred and Kris Kringle—the man hired to play Santa—work together to crack open the hearts of the stubborn Walker women.

So far, so good.

But when Kris Kringle is thrown into an insane asylum for insisting he is Santa Claus, the movie makes an unexpected U-turn from fantasy-laced romance to courtroom drama.

To get Santa out of the asylum, lawyer Fred sets out to prove in court that Kris Kringle is the one true Santa Claus.

Here’s where the movie gets original and funny.  Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever.  Fred’s legal maneuverings are based around the idea that no one involved—not the judge, not the prosecuting attorneys—want to be quoted in the newspaper as saying Santa doesn’t exist and therefore breaking the hearts of the city’s children.  (And more importantly in the case of the elected judge, his constituents.)  Those involved in the case against Santa are shunned at home by their wives and children.

Meanwhile, Doris and Susan are ultimately won over by Kris Kringle.

When the post office begins delivering all the mail addressed to Santa Claus to Kris Kringle at the courthouse, Fred uses this as proof that the U.S. government officially recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus.

The judge rules in his favor, Santa is released from the looney bin, and everyone makes it home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.

Little Susan gets the last scene in the film when she becomes a true believer in Santa when he manages to deliver her impossible Christmas request—a lovely house in the suburbs, which a newly engaged Doris and Fred agree to buy.

It’s a great film, and if you’ve never seen it, make a point to this week.

To all my readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.  I’m grateful to all those who read and support this film series in particular and my writing in general.  Even with the pandemic, I have much to be grateful for this holiday season.

I’ll be back next week at the usual time and place for the last movie blog of 2020.  Then it’s full speed ahead into 2021.

Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List

This post contains links to all of the entries in my Golden Age of Hollywood series.

I will update each Wednesday with the current week’s post.

Enjoy!

Part I:  Birth of the Talkies

Part II:  A Toothless Code

Part III: Screwing Around

Part IV: The Case for Barbara Stanwyck

Part V: The Greatest Year in Movies

Part VI: The Fabulous Forties

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Five Films To Get You Started

If I’ve piqued your interest on classic films but you don’t where to start, you can’t go wrong by beginning with these five stellar films. If you don’t love these, then classic Hollywood films are not for you.

  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
    • Katharine Hepburn’s funniest–and best–film. Also Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and the best script in Hollywood history
  • The Lady Eve (1941)
    • Barbara Stanwyck tortures poor Henry Fonda in this tale of her revenge between losing and regaining his love.
  • Casablanca (1942)
    • Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Bergman walks into Bogie’s.
  • All About Eve (1950)
    • Bette Davis at her absolute best. As relevant today as it was seventy years ago.
  • Rear Window (1954)
    • Hitchcock directs Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that got away.

Sources

Actor/Actress/Director Biographies

  • Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, Donald Spoto
  • Clark Gable: A Biography, Warren G. Harris
  • Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard, Larry Swindell
  • Stanwyck, Axel Madsen
  • Starring Miss Stanwyck, Ella Smith
  • Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Ed Sikov
  • A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, Jan Herman

Cinema History and Film Essays

  • Sin In Soft Focus: Pre Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira
  • The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking In The Studio Era, Thomas Schatz
  • A World of Movies: 70 Years of Film History, Richard Lawton
  • The Noir Style, Alain Silver and James Ursini
  • American Cinema of the 1930s, Edited by Ina Rae Hark
  • American Cinema of the 1940s, Edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon
  • American Cinema of the 1950s, Edited by Murray Pomerance

Gaslight: Driving Ingrid Crazy

Sweden produced two of Hollywood’s most revered actresses.  The first was Greta Garbo, queen of the silent screen and film’s first true mega-star.

The second was Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman won her first of three Oscars for her role in 1944’s Gaslight, a performance so riveting that it beat out Barbara Stanwyck’s breathtaking turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  (Part IV of this blog was dedicated to my bitterness that Stanwyck never won an Oscar.  But even I cannot begrudge the Academy for rewarding Bergman for her excellent work here.)

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered with her new husband.  Though at first blissfully happy, the honeymoon is soon over as Paula begins to lose and forget things.  At her husband’s insistence, she becomes a recluse, convinced she is too ill for visitors and that she is slowly losing her mind.  

She is isolated and alone but for the servants as her husband goes out every night to work on his music compositions (none of which ever seem to be completed.)

But things are not as they seem for Paula—she is perfectly sane and well.  She is the victim of her husband’s sadistic obsession.  He is the one hiding things to make her believe she has lost them.  He is the one removing pictures from the walls and then telling Paula she did it.  He has narrowed her world to that claustrophobic house, creating an alternative universe where he can slowly and deliberately drive her insane.  She has no one else to talk to, no one else to rely on, no one else to inform her of her sanity or the outside world.

I won’t reveal her husband’s motive, or how Paula eventually extricates herself from his clutches, because it is a suspenseful film of psychological manipulation that I encourage you to watch.

It’s tense, tightly plotted, and will have you squirming in your seat—not from any gruesome violence—but by watching Paula’s escalating distress at her sincere belief that she is losing her mind while her husband stands by and adds fuel to the fire.  It is a cruel and premeditated strike playing on a person’s greatest fear—that they are no longer in control of their own actions.

Bergman and Charles Boyer are wonderful and convincing in their roles as the tortured wife and sadistic husband.  Their portrayal was the third version of the gaslight story—the first was a 1938 play, followed by a film version in 1940.  The film was remade by Bergman and Boyer in 1944.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the versions, you likely know the term gaslight.  It’s used often today in the news and psychiatric circles to describe a form of psychological manipulation when one person (usually, though not always, a man) tries to control his victim by making them doubt their own perceptions and judgement.  It involves isolating, doubting, trivializing, and humiliating the other person.  It is psychological rather than physical abuse.

In the stage and film versions, Paula notices that when she is alone at night, the light dims in her gas powered lamps.  This would normally indicate that someone has turned on the gas in another part of the house.  (Like water pressure going down if too many taps are on)  Her husband insists she is imagining the gas dimming because it only happens when she is alone.  He knows, however, that she is perfectly sane because he does not actually leave the house every night to work as he tells her, but goes up into the attic and turns on the gas.

It’s a metaphor for all of his psychological manipulation, and the manipulation that is still practiced today.  To gaslight someone is more than to merely lie to them.  It is to manipulate until the person no longer believes their sense of the world is true, and no longer trusts their own judgement.

It’s a terrible way to torture someone.

But it makes for outstanding cinema.

The Philadelphia Story: Triumph of the Transatlantic Accent

If you watch a lot of movies made in the 1940’s, eventually you’re going to ask— 

Why do they talk like that?

You know what I mean—that half British, half American sing-song way of clipping out words and extending the vowels.  It indicates an upper crust, old money,  ivy-league sensibility, and doesn’t sound like anyone who ever actually lived.

I introduce you to the Transatlantic accent.

The Transatlantic (sometimes called Mid-Atlantic) accent is unusual in that it was not developed naturally based on the peculiar region where one grows up but was instead deliberately taught in fancy, northeastern boarding schools in the 1920’s-1940’s to indicate one’s place in the upper class.  The Hollywood studios loved it and encouraged their stars to take elocution lessons to perfect it.  

If you want a masterclass in the Transatlantic accent, you need go no further than The Philadelphia Story.

This film lets three of Hollywood’s greatest stars—and two of the best examples of the Transatlantic accent—talk and talk and talk for nearly two hours.

Perhaps that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t.  The great charm of The Philadelphia Story is in the talking.  It’s a movie that started out life as a play, and is full of snappy dialogue— innuendo, subtle jokes, and those wonderful accents.  Most everything happens—the advancing plot, the expression of emotion, the twist ending—through dialogue rather than action.

The great Katharine Hepburn, who is said to be the only person ever born speaking with a Transatlantic accent, plays Tracy Lord, a haughty Philadelphia heiress who has divorced one husband and is on the verge of marrying another.

Hepburn’s voice is one of the most recognized in the world.  She had a lot in common with Tracy Lord—she too was a bit haughty and aggressive and had the air of the wealthy progressive Bryn Mawr girl that she was.

Tracy Lord is judgemental but not icy cold, and she has a soft side that is uncovered through the course of the film.

Cary Grant is her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, another rich American aristocrat who likes teasing Tracy but is still very much in love with her.  Grant was British himself, but had developed a Transatlantic accent that is nearly as recognizable as Hepburn’s.

But it is third-billed Jimmy Stewart who steals the film as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a reporter sent to cover the wedding who at first disdains Tracy’s high society ways but grows smitten when he learns there is more to her.

Jimmy Stewart’s accent is just as recognizable, though not a Transatlantic.  It is a one-of-a-kind stutter-step that he would perfect throughout his career.  

On the eve of Tracy’s wedding, Mike and Tracy—who never drinks—get drunk, go for a swim, and are discovered in a way that while innocent, looks quite indecent.

A hungover Tracy cannot remember exactly what she has and hasn’t done, and the haughty goddess of Philadelphia is laid low.  She learns the lesson that not everyone can be perfect, and despite her fiance’s willingness to forgive her indiscretions, and Mike’s proposal of marriage to quell the scandal, it is her mischievous and flawed first husband Dexter whom she truly loves and can now appreciate.

It’s amazing that Katharine Hepburn won four leading acting Oscars—more than anyone else—and did not win one for this film that so typified her and her career.  It was Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal that earned him the only acting Oscar of his career.

The Transatlantic accent fell out of fashion after World War II, even if Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn didn’t.

A study of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart is incomplete without The Philadelphia Story.  The film  is a charming story that is artificial in speech and setup but always satisfying. 

Mrs. Miniver: Prestigious Propaganda

Part VI: The Fabulous Forties

It is with some regret that we leave the great films of 1939.  However, we are entering the 1940’s, the best decade in Hollywood history.  The movies of the 1940’s radiated the glamour most often associated with Old Hollywood.  

Unlike the quick transition from silent films to talkies, color films moved into the mainstream at a turtle’s pace.  Despite wowing the public with technicolor in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, black and white was still the default for most movies made in the 1940’s.  Color did not become a standard feature until the early 1950’s.

Actors and directors gained more independence from the studios, and the studios began making fewer, better films.  In 1946, more Americans went to the movie theater than any other year in film history.

In Part VI of this blog, we’ll take a romp through some of the best known and most loved films of this decade, as well as hopefully discovering some hidden gems that are less known to the casual viewer.

The films made in the 1940’s were defined by World War II—as both distraction and propaganda.  The Office of War Information collaborated with Hollywood to make films that focused on the war effort and the importance of defeating the Axis powers and celebrating American contributions on the homefront and the battlefield.  And the disillusionment after the war led to film noir, a dark genre that highlighted the cynical and predatory nature of man.

In the crowded field of mediocre propaganda films, Mrs. Miniver stood out.

Director William Wyler already had a reputation for prestige pictures—when he started Mrs. Miniver, he’d made six films that had been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, including Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, and The Little Foxes.  He’d go on to garner 7 more nominations (including some wins) post Mrs. Miniver.

Wyler had a way of getting the best out of his actresses—Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbara Streisand would all win best actress Oscars starring in William Wyler films.

So too would Greer Garson, for her titular role in Mrs. Miniver

When Wyler started the film, the United States was neutral, but by the time it was released in 1942, Roosevelt had declared war.

Mrs. Miniver tells the story of an ordinary British family who “keeps calm and carries on” in the midst of the Blitz.  Mrs. Miniver moves—as do many of Wyler’s films—at a leisurely pace.  The war does not immediately come to Belham, their fictional village outside London.  Mrs. Miniver indulges herself by buying an expensive hat while her husband Clem does the same with a car.  Their son Vin meets and falls in love with Carol.  There’s a subplot about a competition of who can grow the most beautiful rose in the village.

Yet during it all the threat of war looms, and soon enough it is upon the Minivers, who do their duty with courage and honor.  Vin joins the Royal Air Force, Clem stocks their bomb shelter and hangs blackout curtains, and Mrs. Miniver successfully disarms a German soldier who breaks into her home.

You can’t help but watch the film with a sense of foreboding—it is clear that this film is meant to show the courage and sacrifice of Kay Miniver and her family, and you know that someone she loves is going to die.  Will it be Vin, shot down in the line of duty?  Or Clem, who has taken his fishing boat to help evacuate the soldiers at Dunkirk?

But when the death comes, it is an unexpected gut punch.  Mrs. Miniver and Carol, now Vin’s beautiful young wife, are driving home from the rose festival when a German fighter plane goes down and crashes in a field in front of them.

It takes a moment for the horror to hit Mrs. Miniver and the audience—Carol has been hit by a stray bullet.

She is no soldier.  She was not intentionally targeted by the Germans.  She has her whole life ahead of her.

Yet she is the Miniver who will not survive the war.

Teresa Wright as Carol Miniver

The film does not end on this note of senseless tragedy, but with renewed purpose and hope.  A preacher gives a rousing speech telling his congregants that they must all fight the war.  They must persevere in the name of freedom and to defend their way of life.

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. George West, choirboy. James Ballard, stationmaster and bellringer, and the proud winner only an hour before his death of the Beldon 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’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves 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 the 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.

President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used this speech to inspire Americans and Brits.  It was played over the radio, printed in magazines and in leaflets dropped on German-occupied countries.

Winston Churchill said it was “propaganda worth 100 battleships.”

It was a huge commercial success and a top box office draw in 1942.  It was nominated for 12 Oscars and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Greer Garson.

Wyler was not there to receive his Oscar in person; he’d joined the Air Force and was in Europe filming combat missions for war documentaries.

I don’t think contemporary audiences can truly appreciate the impact Mrs. Miniver must have had on American moviegoers in 1942.  We’ve been stuffed to the gills with World War II movies, everything from Patton to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan.  Few subjects have been covered as thoroughly on film.  We’ve seen the homefront, the gory horror, and the atrocities committed in concentration camps.

Against all the guts, gore, and angst, Mrs. Miniver feels quaint.  Her encounter with the German soldier, while riveting in its day, is not violent enough for our bloodthirsty modern sensibilities.

But at the time, this was the first film that most people saw explicitly about the war.

More importantly, we know how the story ends.  Britain triumphed; so did America.

But the audiences in 1942 didn’t know that either would.  Pearl Harbor was fresh; many were predicting imminent British defeat.

The fight for our way of life was in full force; and all anyone knew was that many more would die before victory or defeat was determined.

That final sermon probably made their hair stand on end.  

When I give this film a verdict of “Had Its Day, But That Day Is Done,” it is an acknowledgement of the gap between the 1942 and 2020 audiences that can never be bridged.

The beauty of watching these old films is how relevant they sometimes are to the modern world, or how universal the stories.  Or that the emotional impact is similar, despite all the years between us and the original viewers.  A film like Gone With the Wind gets under my skin in the same way it did audiences in 1939.  Those people didn’t experience the Civil War either.  

But Mrs. Miniver is locked to a moment in time that audiences felt in their bones in a way that I can never access.

Like watching Garbo speak for the first time in Anna Christie, or the beast menacing Fay Wray in King Kong, I guess you had to be there.

Scarlett and Melanie: Film’s First Frenemies

In 1935, young producer David O. Selznick left MGM to start his own production company.  Despite his successes at MGM, Paramount, and RKO, Selznick longed for creative freedom.  In those days the studios were movie factories–producing one after another, with a bigger eye on the budget than the quality.

Selznick didn’t want to crank out films.  He wanted to make one-of-a-kind original works of art that would stand the test of time.

And he believed Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized novel of the fall of the south could be his crown jewel.

He spent two years casting his masterpiece, interviewing 1,400 women before deciding on a leading lady.  He second guessed every move by his scriptwriters.  He was a complete control freak–burning through three directors who couldn’t take his constant meddling and his blistering memos that went on for many single-spaced typed pages.

He nearly worked himself to death and bankrupted his new company, but in the end he accomplished his impossible goal.

Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie that ever was and ever will be.

No movie will ever again capture a nation’s attention again like Gone With the Wind because movies no longer hold an outsized place in our culture.

In 1939, you watched sports by going to the games.  You read the news in the morning paper.  You read stories in novels or listened to them on the serialized radio shows.

The only screen you ever saw was the giant silver one at the movie theater.

And there was Gone With the Wind, an epic tale that blew away anything anyone had ever seen before.  It was the first movie many people saw in color, over twice as long as the average film of the day.

It was promoted as an event–unlike other movies of the time, it had reserved seating, premium priced tickets, and an intermission.  It was initially booked only in huge theaters with at least 850 seats.

People knew they were seeing something special.

More people saw Gone With the Wind in the movie theater than any other movie that has ever existed, and it is inconceivable that another movie will ever surpass it.  It sold more than two times as many tickets as Avengers:  Endgame, the top film of last year.

It holds a place of cultural relevance nearly as high as The Wizard of Oz, without the benefit of thirty years of annual event showings on television.  (While The Wizard of Oz made its television debut in 1956, viewers could not watch Scarlett and Rhett on the small screen until 1976.)

It’s been the subject of recent controversy over its romanticized depiction of slavery, but the fact that people want it banned in 2020 only further illustrates its hold on the American public.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know the plot.  Vain, selfish southern belle Scarlett O’Hara convinces herself she loves Ashley Wilkes, the one man she cannot have, and one who is temperamentally unsuited to make her happy.  While pinning for happily married Ashley, Scarlett misses out on happiness with Rhett Butler, a man who does love her and would make her happy.

All this plays out during the Civil War and its aftermath, a war that devastates the south and decimates Scarlett’s family and beloved plantation home, Tara.

Gone With the Wind is classified as a historical epic romance, but it’s really a war movie.  

And while Scarlett and Rhett’s romance gets all the press, in many ways the central relationship of the film is that between Scarlett and Ashley’s wife, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.

Scarlett is often written off as a vicious conniver, and Melanie the saintly doormat who’s oblivious to Scarlett’s faults.

Yet it’s not that simple.

In the film’s opening scene, Scarlett makes clear her disdain for Melanie Hamilton, as a no-fun “goody goody” whom Scarlett would dislike even if she weren’t engaged to Ashley Wilkes.

Melanie, for her part, hopes she and Scarlett will become great friends.

Scarlett spends the first half of the film as a spoiled rich girl who schemes to steal Ashley away, even after he marries Melanie.  She is shameless and plays on Ashley’s lust–if not love–for her.  Even when the war begins, she is more consumed by petty jealousy and concerns.  With Ashely off to war, Scarlett visits Melanie in Atlanta so that she will be there to see Ashley home from the war.

Scarlett despises the war and can’t stomach nursing the injured men.  She is as selfish as ever.  But everything changes when the Yankees are on the cusp of invading Atlanta and a pregnant Melanie is too weak to evacuate.  Though she wants nothing more than to return to Tara and her mother, Scarlett stays behind with Melanie.  She has the chance to leave with Rhett, and again with Melanie’s Aunt Pitty, but she stays.  

When Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett looks for help and finds none–most of the Confederate Army has pulled out of Atlanta, the doctor cannot leave the thousands of injured men, and Scarlett’s slave Prissy admits she lied about knowing how to deliver babies.

As Melanie cries out for help, Scarlett realizes she is on her own.

And for the first time in her life, she rises to the occasion.  She walks up the stairs with a look of grim determination on her face, and for the first time we see the steel-willed survivor inside her.

Scarlett delivers the baby and saves Melanie’s life.  She takes them on a harrowing journey back to Tara, where Scarlett hopes her mother will take over.

But when they reach Tara, they find the place looted and burned and without a scrap of food or money.  Scarlett’s mother is dead and her father has gone insane.  Melanie is still dangerously ill.  Scarlett’s two sisters are useless.  All but three of the slaves have run off.

There was never a more ill-prepared head of the family than Scarlett O’Hara.

Standing with a raised fist and a dirty radish pulled from the ground, she vows:

“As god as my witness, they’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor will any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill.  As god as witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

That quote sets up the second half of the film–Scarlett will lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect Tara.  And despite continuing to despise her and desire her husband, Scarlett considers Melanie and the baby part of the folk under her protection.

Scarlett gets them through the war and its brutal aftermath.  Even when Ashley returns home, he is of no help to Scarlett.  He is a southern gentleman, without the grit required to drag them back to prosperity.

Like all of us, Scarlett’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness.

If not for Scarlett, Melanie, her baby, and Ashely would’ve starved to death in the aftermath of the war.

And yet when the war is over, Scarlett cannot shed her skin of ruthlessness.

Rhett sweeps her off her feet and marries her, wanting nothing more than to spoil and soothe her.  Though she has every outer appearance of returning to the petty rich girl she once was, her nightmares betray that the horror of war has not left her.  

She is haunted by her former hunger, driven to acquire more money via fair means or foul to keep the beast of poverty at baby.

Because of this, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scarlett O’Hara.  So does Melanie Wilkes.

Even as Scarlett continues to try to steal her husband, and her well-bred social set wants Melanie to drop Scarlett as a friend, Melanie stands by Scarlett.

Years later on her deathbed, Melanie wants to talk to Scarlett.  There are no tearful confessions on either side, but Melanie says just enough to know that she has not been oblivious to Scarlett’s machinations for her husband, and asks Scarlett to care for him.

It’s not because she’s a doormat–it’s because she knows that she and her baby wouldn’t be alive without Scarlett.  And it’s clear to Melanie, as it is to Rhett–that Scarlett has PTSD from the war, though they wouldn’t know to call it that.

In the end, Melanie knows Scarlett better than Scarlett knows herself.  

And Scarlett, despite her lifelong protests that she despises Melanie, never left the weaker woman behind.