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

Part VII: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

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.

Stagecoach: Enter Johns Wayne and Ford

Reader, I’ll confess:  I nearly skipped Stagecoach.

I knew its pedigree:  the first major collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford, a duo that would go on to make most of America’s great westerns.  It was the first Western John Ford shot in Monument Valley, a rugged strip of land on the Arizona-Utah border.  Ford would return to Monument Valley again and again throughout his career.

And though John Wayne had shown up in dozens of movies before, Stagecoach is the film that elevated him from bit player to A-list star.  It’s hard to believe, but The Duke doesn’t even get top billing in the film–that honor goes to Claire Trevor, an actress mostly forgotten who plays Wayne’s love interest in the film.

They don’t make many westerns anymore, and I’d never seen one from the Golden Age.  I honestly thought a silly movie about cowboys and indians riding around shooting each other would bore me.

I was wrong.

Stagecoach earns its reputation as a great film in a great year, even to a skeptic like me.

With apologies to my preconceived notions of Ford and Wayne, Stagecoach had way more heart than I’d expected.

It’s not just a story of cowboys and indians shooting each other–though the final chase scene is magnificent–but a story of people.

It’s surprisingly fresh.

The plot is simple–a group of strangers sets out in 1880 on a dangerous stagecoach trip, braving the threat of an Apache attack to reach their destination.  Each has their own reasons for taking the risk to make it to New Mexico.

There’s a scene in Titanic when Rose’s mother asks, “Will the lifeboats be seated by class?”

It’s a revealing line about the deep class divides that persist even when the trappings of society are stripped away in the name of survival.

John Ford is driving at the same point in Stagecoach–that even in the land where we say we believe “all men are created equal”, we often act more like George Orwell’d pigs in Animal Farm, where “some are more equal than others.”

In Ford’s coach we have the respectable members of society:  Pregnant lady Lucy Mallory, gambling aristocrat Hatfield, banker Ellsworth Gatewood, and whiskey runner Sam Peacock.

Then, we have the undesirables:  Town drunk Doc Boone, prostitute Dallas (Trevor), coach drivers Buck and Curly, and fugitive Ringo Kid (Wayne).

The first half of the film is filled with the undesirables suffering assorted humiliations at the hands of the respected.  Doc Boone and Dallas are run out of town.  Lucy Mallory’s friends lament that she has to share the stagecoach with such dregs of humanity.  Dallas does not receive the gentlemanly deference shown to Lucy.  And though Lucy tries to hide her disdain, she does not want to sit at the same table with Doc Boone, Ringo, and Dallas.

But halfway through the film–after the stagecoach ride has taken much longer than expected–Lucy goes into labor.  The coach is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dangers and a hundred miles away from help.  

Without the drunken doctor and the prostitute she so disdains, Lucy and her baby would’ve died.

The doctor and Dallas show no ill will–they accept their lower role in society, and do what needs to be done to save Lucy.  In fact all the undesirables show far more mercy, courage, and class than those who are supposedly their betters.

There’s a great chase scene–this is a western, of course–that I found thrilling.  You can feel the dust in your throat, imagine the stink of sweat in that claustrophobic coach.  I jumped when an arrow hit one of the passengers right in the heart to kick off the epic battle.

(Also, Hatfield saves his last bullet so he can shoot Lucy to prevent her capture–and torture–by the savage Apaches.  Forget wine and roses, I want a man who saves the last bullet for me.)

And of course Ringo romances Dallas.  He saves the stagecoach, avenges his brother’s death, gets the girl, and eludes capture by the authorities.

It was exactly the ending I wanted.  And the most pleasant of surprises.

Just another legend that time hasn’t found a way to dim.

The Wizard of Oz: “No Place Like Home”

So far, I’ve written 33 posts and covered 44 classic films.  There’s only one I’d bet that everyone reading has seen.

It’s time for the Wizard of Oz, perhaps the world’s only universally beloved film.

Everyone knows Tarzan’s strange yodel, even if they couldn’t pick Johnny Weissmuller out of a lineup.  Gone With the Wind is the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of film.  Casablanca has half a dozen quotes you know, even if you’ve never seen the film.  I’ve read a dozen novels in my life where the main character (always a woman) loves The Philadelphia Story.  No one has ever successfully remade a Hitchcock film (and after watching the 2020 Rebecca I was so excited to see, I believe no one ever will.)

And yet, for all their lore, these films are slowly receding from the public consciousness.  Discovered less and less by younger generations, they’re increasingly relegated to a niche market.  Instead of flipping through channels and discovering Bogart and Bergman on Turner Classic Movies, we’re working our way through the Hallmark movie lineup or our Netflix queues (where the oldest non-documentary film was made in 1954.)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  As time marches on, these films become cemented as artifacts of a different era.

But The Wizard of Oz is different.  Eighty years later, it is still a living, breathing part of our popular culture.

How do I know?

Every Halloween, I pass out candy to half a dozen little girls dressed in blue gingham dresses and ruby red slippers.  Drew Barrymore herself dressed up as Glinda the Good Witch this year.

Just last season Saturday Night Live did a skit with Kate McKinnon as Dorothy.  

And Wicked, a retelling from the witch’s point of view, is one of the most popular contemporary musicals that brought us Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (who played the Wicked Witch before she Let It Go.)

While writing this entry, I texted my friends with young children and asked if they had shown The Wizard of Oz to their kids.  

Mine never saw it, replied a mother of two kids in grade school.  But they said they knew the story and proceeded to tell me.

You walk into any Barnes and Noble, and even with their gutted out DVD sections, you’ll still find a copy of The Wizard of Oz for sale.

Why?

It wasn’t because of its unprecedented success in 1939.

MGM spent a fortune on the film and initially considered it a disappointment.  It was the fifth top-grossing film of the year, just behind Dark Victory, but because of its huge production budget it lost money during its initial run.  And though it was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, it won only two awards for score and song.  (Was there ever a more worthy Oscar win than Somewhere Over the Rainbow for Best Song?)

So it was just one of dozens of successful movies made in the Golden Age.  Here, then gone.  For the next seventeen years, there was nothing to suggest this particular film would become a national treasure.

Then came television.

On November 3, 1956, The Wizard of Oz was the first theatrical film shown on television.  Roughly 45 million people watched from home that night, nearly matching the total tickets sold during its entire theatrical run.  

The movie ran for the second time in 1959, and thereafter became an annual tradition.  It aired once a year on commercial network television from 1959-1991.  Even today it continues to run on cable television.

Margaret Hamilton (1902 – 1985) as the Wicked Witch and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969) as Dorothy Gale in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isn’t that where you first saw it?

It was a network television event, a family tradition similar today only to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It’s a two hour nostalgia machine for adults with childhoods that spanned from the sixties to the nineties.

Four factors led to its long-term television dominance, and thus a cultural sprawl that reaches today’s children and could never have been achieved in the movie theater alone.

First, it was a family affair.  After the initial prime time broadcast, CBS showed subsequent versions earlier in the evening, so that children could watch.  It is the rare film that holds equal wonder for children and adults.

Second, its very success insulated it from competition.  For the initial viewing, CBS signed a deal with MGM for four viewings with an option for additional showings.  Neither CBS nor MGM anticipated much interest beyond the initial viewing.  CBS was just looking for content to fill up its new medium.

Once MGM and the other studios realized how popular their films could be on television, they were unwilling to sell them as cheaply to the networks.  It had never occurred to the studios that they could make new money—big money—off these dusty old films that were no longer showing on the big screen.

So while the studios bickered with the networks and sealed their best films in a vault, The Wizard of Oz played on and on.

Third, during the early broadcasts most Americans had black and white televisions.  When color made its way into most American homes in the sixties, families were clamoring to finally see the gold in the yellow brick road they’d watched Dortothy skip down many times.

Finally, and most important, the film delivers. 

I don’t need to review the plot, do I?

We all remember the clicking ruby slippers, the poppy fields (an opium reference that went over my head the first fifty times I saw it), and the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking that she would “get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

Flying monkeys.  Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)  Munchkins.  Yellow brick roads.  The cowardly lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow, who we all miss most of all.

Watching the Wizard of Oz is like returning to a never-changing hometown.  It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, I know every turn in the yellow brick road like the back of my hand.

You do too.

In Name Only: Crying Clowns

Even if you haven’t watched them, you’ve probably heard of most of the best films of 1939.  It’s the birthplace of some of the most beloved, quoted and remembered films.  In 1939, every major star we think of from the Golden Age made a film—Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphre Bogart…I could go on.

Nineteen-thirty nine gave us Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

And it’s perhaps because it was released during the year that was an embarrassment of riches that we often forget about a wonderful melodrama called In Name Only.

We might also forget about it because it defies expectations—in 1939, if you put your quarter down for a movie starring the two greatest screwball comedians ever to have lived, you expect to laugh.

And yet Carole Lombard and Cary Grant deliver two quietly lovely performances as an earnest couple in love despite the fact he is married to someone else.

It would be like casting Melissa McCarthy and George Clooney in a Nicholas Sparks movie.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet In Name Only is a tender gem that should not be overlooked.

Grant plays Alec Walker, a wealthy man who’s been emotionally dead since discovering his cold-blooded wife married him only for his money and no longer pretends she ever loved him.  He’s resigned to his loveless marriage until he meets Julie Eden, an open hearted widow with a young daughter.

Desperate for the moments of happiness he finds with Julie, he doesn’t tell her he is married.  Once she inevitably finds out, the love between them becomes equal parts joy and sorrow.

Carole Lombard, deprived of all her physical comedy tricks, is quite convincing as a good, moral woman caught between her heart and the strictures of the time.  It is clear that she never would have entertained a romance with Alec had she known he was married.  And yet once she loves him, she finds it impossible to either stay with him or to give him up.

And it’s hard to blame Alec for misleading her, as he is stifled in his loveless home and at first just looking for some afternoons filled with light and laughter.  Cary Grant can never be anything less than charming, but he tones down his mischievous side so that we know Alec has nothing but respect for Julie despite deceiving her.  This is no casual fling, and he is no cad.

Alec’s wife does all she can to paint Julie as a common tramp, and Julie agonizes over her disgrace of carrying on with a married man.  Alec demands a divorce, but his wife finds one reason after another to delay until it becomes clear she will never free him.

Julie leaves Alec, breaking her heart to salvage her self-respect, but when Alec grows deathly ill both wife and mistress rush to his side.

In true soap opera fashion, Alec’s viper of a wife keeps Julie from seeing him.  Without Julie, Alec has lost the will to live and is near death.  When Julie finally reaches him and promises him they will be together, he turns the corner for the better.  His wife is exposed as the viper she is, and a happy ending is assured.

Cue the dramatic music.

It’s a sentimental, dramatic tear-jerker.  

Just the kind of movie I’m a sucker for.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Clarissa Explains it All

#32 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

Sometimes, because of something that’s happening in the world at large or inside your own four walls, you’re especially open to a particular message.  You’re a student, waiting for your teacher to appear.  If this message comes in the form of a well-crafted film, it can alter the way you see the world or yourself.  The film—or novel—can become part of your own life’s story.

The best art becomes part of our very DNA.  

And sometimes, your heart is so stone cold on an issue that not even one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time can pierce through.

Such was my unfortunate, unsatisfying experience with Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a United States senator dies suddenly, the state’s governor appoints Jefferson Smith to serve out the remainder of the term.  Jefferson Smith is no politician.  He’s basically a Boy Scout Troop leader, bursting with honesty and pure patriotism.

He comes to Washington with an earnest desire to do good and completely naive to the inner workings of the federal government.  When he tries to pass a bill to build a boy’s camp, he inadvertently jeopardizes the underhanded scheme of Senator Paine and a political boss.  The two have conspired to secretly buy up land and then sell it at a premium when they pass a bill to build a dam on the property.

This property, of course, is where Jeff Smith wishes to build his boy’s camp.

Jeff Smith has his illusions destroyed as he uncovers the plot.  Senator Paine and others work to undermine Jeff at every turn, first manipulating him, then intimidating him, and finally framing him for the crime of buying the land.

Jeff refuses to give up, and the film ends with Jeff’s magnificent filibuster on the floor of the senate, where he vows to keep on fighting for justice and American values no matter what the corrupt elites do to stop him.

He ultimately passes out on the senate floor from exhaustion, and in an attack of conscience, Senator Paine admits the truth of his guilt—and Jeff’s innocence—in the scheme.

It is the triumph of idealism over cynicism, which is usually just the kind of story I love.

But a week away from the most contentious presidential election in my lifetime, poor Mr. Smith just didn’t land for me.   

You too probably have strong feelings about the upcoming election, regardless of your political party.  Depending on who you support, you may be feeling pessimism, optimism, despair, or hope.

But red, blue, or independent, I can’t believe anyone is feeling idealistic about American politics at this moment in our history.

For better or worse, the polite masks have been ripped away to reveal the raw power struggle that drives the bloodsport of national elections.

In this light, Mr. Smith looks hopelessly naive.  The film’s corrupt act of buying up land to sell at a premium wouldn’t even make today’s newspaper, much less the front page.

The delight of watching so many classic films has been how fresh and relevant they feel.

But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is eighty-one years old, and feels even older. It speaks of an idealism that was possible before Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11.

Director Frank Capra himself became disillusioned after World War II, and his later films took on a darker tone.

But if I cut away the personal baggage brought to watching this film in 2020, it is easy to see why Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is beloved.  It is a treasure, and was one of the first films chosen by the National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.

First off, you have James Stewart, one the greatest and most beloved characters of all time in the title role.  This is the movie that rightfully made Stewart a star.  He plays Jeff with a wide-eyed wonder that never fully dims despite discovering that his hero Senator Paine is rotten and weak.

But it’s Clarissa Saunders, played wonderfully by Jean Arthur, who is really at the heart of the film.  Saunders is Jeff’s world weary secretary, who knows how Washington really works and is disgusted by it all.  She at first thinks Jeff’s innocence is an act, then dismisses him as a hopeless rube.

Almost against her will, she teaches Jeff the ropes and tries to protect his innocence.  In one of the film’s best scenes, she explains the arduous process it takes to actually write a bill and pass a law.  As the film goes on, his idealism melts her cold heart, and in the final act she has become a true believer.  Her understanding of the rules—both written and unwritten—of the senate are the key to Jeff’s successful filibuster.

It is Saunders, more so than Jeff, who is the stand-in for the audience.  She has the most satisfying story arc—a cynic finding her idealism, so much so that she convinces Jeff to keep fighting for his “lost cause” when he considers quitting in a moment of weakness.

So maybe I—maybe we—should all take heart that if even cynical Saunders can rediscover her idealism in the heart of an honest politician, maybe we can do the same.

If we can find one. 

We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca: The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

#31 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America.  Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.

It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch.  Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel.  He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming.  He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again.  He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios.  He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films.  Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind.  When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end.  Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.

Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder.  He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient.  He hated chaos.  He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.

It was a collaboration that couldn’t last.  But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.

Rebecca is a masterpiece.  A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history.  And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.

The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man.  After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage.  Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts.  After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.

In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences.  Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.

That’s right.  Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca.  She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter.  (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca.  According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes.  She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.

Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.

Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems.  We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk.  When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.

The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.

Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?

It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name.  Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow.  And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home.  And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.

You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Together, you have that Hollywood magic.

Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939.  So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?

Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.  I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake.  For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom.  With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake. I was sold as soon as I saw the headband.

Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?

Here’s hoping.

*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.