Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.” By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.
But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.
Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.
After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.
But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.
After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways. Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.
And Astaire? Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner. He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all. He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing. How hard could it be to teach someone else?
Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.
She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.
A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.
She should’ve chosen not to accept it.
It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film. Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.
The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love. It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.
Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.
They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne. In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.
Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing. Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.
All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.
Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.
The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans. Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American. The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.
After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American. Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle. He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)
Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.
By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.
The film was not a success. The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together. Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.
As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.
It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?
But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)
It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood. Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.
Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.
An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.
Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.
Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.
Game on, girls.
Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
Behlmer, Martin, ed. Memo from David O. Selznick
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Jack Warner was a gambler. You have to be to get into the movie business. He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.
But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.
The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table: an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.
Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.
Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.
And fresh off her success inA Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.
A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.
Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.
I’m here for it.
Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England. Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica.
On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles. Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner. Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.
Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.
Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.
A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves.
Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.
When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.
Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.
And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.
Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated. He leads the fights and takes the first blow. He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.
And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.
When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.) Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.
She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.
Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.
But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.
Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.
And he gets the girl.
But I didn’t have to tell you that.
Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom. It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941. The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.
Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.
But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair. Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.
At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated. It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.] He would have ruined my life.”1
She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.
On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.
Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.
“I want respect,” she told Flynn. “By that I meant serious work well done.”2
She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.
1 Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
2 Amburn, Ellis. Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Warner, Jack. My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.
Let’s rewind the tape a bit from that night in 1942 when sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine sparred for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Oliva Mary De Havilland was born in Tokyo to British parents in the middle of World War I. Sister Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (she used Fontaine as a stage name to avoid confusion with Olivia in Hollywood) came along a year later, in 1917.
Spurred on by their mother to compete, the sisters were rivals as well as playmates. As an adult, Fontaine admits they were “at each other’s throats1,” even as children. Stories of their squabbling abound—Oliva cutting up her best clothes rather than handing them down to Joan, or nine-year-old Joan plotting to kill Olivia with a “plug between the eyes2,” but only after Olivia hit her first so she could claim self-defense.
By 1934, the de Havilland parents were divorced. Olivia was living with her mother in Saratoga, California, just outside Los Angeles. After spending most of her childhood with her mother and Olivia in Saratoga, Joan was back in Tokyo with her father.
Both girls had done their share of childhood acting in summer theater and plays, but neither had serious thoughts of becoming a professional actress. Director Max Reinhardt signed Olivia up to be the second understudy for Hermia in his theater production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The lavish production was the talk of Hollywood, staged at the Hollywood Bowl (which would go on to feature such acts as The Beatles, The Doors, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones, among countless other acts, and survives to this day.) Reinhardt enlarged the stage and brought in real trees and a pond. The players entered the theater via a suspension bridge and carried live torches. Electric lights represented fireflies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played the score.
It was a spectacle of sound and light worthy of a modern Super Bowl and all of Hollywood royalty talked of it and came to see the show.
As the understudy to the understudy, de Havilland would need not one but two acts of god to get onstage.
God delivered the required miracles when both Jean Rouverol and Gloria Stewart (who many years later would play old Rose in 1997’s Titanic) dropped out of the play to take film roles.
Olivia was in the game.
When Warner Brothers came calling and wanted Reinhardt to direct a film adaptation of the play, he brought only Olivia de Havilland and fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney from the original cast to star in the film.
Olivia de Havilland wavered. She’d only meant to spend the summer backstage before entering Mills College that fall and studying to become an English teacher. But in the end, she signed a long-term contract with Warner Brothers that she would come to see as a blessing and a curse.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, and the film is difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with it. Suffice it to say that it is a tale of magic, fairies, mischief, and love potions gone wrong.
Young noblemen Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) fight over the beautiful Hermia (de Havilland). Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father disapproves. Hermia’s best friend Helena (Jean Muir) is in love with Demetrius.
Oberon, King of the Fairies, comes across the lovers and dispatches his fairy Puck (Rooney) to apply a love potion that will make Demetrius fall in love with Helena and solve the problems of the four young lovers. Unfortunately, Puck gives the potion to Lysander by mistake, with the comedic effect of having both Lysander and Demetrius now in love with Helena instead of Hermia, much to the confusion and consternation of both women.
Meanwhile, Bottom (James Cagney) and a group of tradesmen are practicing a play they wish to put on for the king. To cause further mischief, Puck turns Bottom into a donkey, and Queen of the Fairies Titania (Anita Louise) falls in love with him in donkey form while under the influence of the love potion.
As Lysander tells Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Rest assured that Cagney loses his ass’s head, and all the lovers are restored to health but for Demetrius, who remains permanently in love with Helena.
Shakespeare film adaptations are always tricky.
Actors often have trouble with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and struggle to translate the bard to film. This is certainly not one of Cagney’s or Dick Powell’s best performances.
Audiences have never been all that interested in Shakespeare, and despite the all-star cast led by James Cagney, the film didn’t do well at the box office. Max Reinhardt wasn’t able to transfer the magic of his open air play to celluloid.
All anyone wanted to talk about were the performances of little Mickey Rooney as the shirtless and exuberant scene-stealing Puck, and that beautiful unknown actress with the long funny name who could recite Shakespeare better than any of the well-known stars.
Before long, everyone would know her name.
Olivia de Havilland had arrived.
1 Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses, page 304
2 Jensen, Oliver O. “Sister Act.” Life Magazine, May 4, 1942, page 89
Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
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As any reader knows, a poor film adaptation of your favorite novel can break your heart.
It’s even worse for authors: Jodi Picoult has disowned the 2012 adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper, and will likely never sell the film rights to another one of her bestselling novels. P.L. Travers hated Mary Poppins and Bret Easton Ellis disliked American Psycho. Even Stephen King, who’s had dozens of successful adaptations, hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the 1980 film The Shining.
For these authors, and most who dislike film adaptations, the criticism boils down to this: it might be an okay movie, but it’s not the story I wrote.
Even this critique, it turns out, is as old as Hollywood itself.
As any kid who read My Ántonia in high school English class knows, Willa Cather was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of the best chroniclers of the pioneer days in the American West. In this and her other pioneer novels, she expertly showed the bravery, hardship, and grit that was required to set out to make your fortune in an uncivilized land.
There’s no doubt that Cather’s pioneer trilogy of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia could be made into lush, wonderful films that could bring in a boatload of Oscars and devotion from fans.
But we’ll never see any of them on screens big or small, all because of an all-but-forgotten film starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1934.
Willa Cather wrote A Lost Lady in 1923, a short but moving novel set in the late nineteenth century about the death of the early pioneers and the pioneer way of life. Marian Forrester is the beautiful and much younger wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, a railroad man. They spend part of the year in their home in Sweet Water, a western stop on the transcontinental railroad.
In the novel, we see Marian only through the eyes of others, primarily Niel Herbert, a boy who grows into a young man. He idolizes Marian as the ideal woman and wife. She is beautiful, and a legendary hostess known from Sweet Water to California. She always knows the right word to say, the right drink to pour, the right dances. But there is a lurking cynicism that only shows in flashes. Marian Forrester is a lovely woman with an unknowable heart that makes her all the more appealing. She is loyal to her husband but terribly lonely on the prairie. Neil is dismayed when he discovers that she is having an affair with a man passing through town.
The Captain and his friends are the last of a dying breed, the honest pioneers who put honor ahead of business. When the market crashes, the Captain goes against his lawyer’s advice and spends most of his fortune to ensure his employees get their full savings from a failed bank. The gesture is admirable, but when the Captain dies, Marian is left with nothing and quickly falls from grace.
The Captain is dead. The pioneer spirit is dead, giving way to a colder, more capitalistic world.
But Marian Forrester refuses to die.
Neil, a young man by this time, is disillusioned by watching Marian struggle, consorting by necessity with unsavory characters whom he feels are beneath her. He wants her to remain the pure, perfect wife, and expresses his resentment in the novel’s most famous lines:
“It was what he held most against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”
So what did Hollywood do when it got its hands on this complicated story about the death of the pioneer days, the mystery of another’s marriage, and the subtle coming of age story of an idealistic young man?
Flattened it like a pancake, and left its heart on the cutting room floor.
It isn’t a terrible film. It just isn’t the story Cather wrote.
In Hollywood’s version, Stanwyck plays Marian Forrester, and while she is excellent in this film, she is slightly miscast for Cather’s version of Marian. Stanwyck herself, and Hollywood’s Marian, is too honest and direct.
Cather’s Marian is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who charmed and drew in all the men around her without ever revealing her essential self—a woman like our aforementioned Grace Kelly would’ve been perfect for this role, but for that fact that she was five years old and playing with dolls in Philadelphia when the film was made.
As in the novel, Marian marries Captain Forrester out of gratitude and affection. He rescues her after a great heartbreak (when her fiance is shot by his mistresses’ husband) and a great injury (a fall that breaks her leg).
In the film, Marian has lost the will to live, but Captain Forrester believes he can love her back to life. He is thrilled to show off his new wife to his friends, and untroubled by his loveless (and apparently sexless) marriage.
They promise an unflinching honesty, which becomes a problem when Forrester leaves town on a business trip and Marian finds her long-dormant libido awakened when handsome cad Frank Ellinger comes to town.
Marian tells the Captain about the affair, and he sets about stoically letting her go, even though he is now as heartbroken as she at the beginning of the film. His stress causes a heart attack, and his near death makes Marian realize she loves him after all. She breaks it off with Ellinger, and nurses the Captain back to love and faith, as he once did for her.
The film ends with them both equally in love for the first time in their marriage, and the promise of a happy, fulfilling, and true marriage.
There is no mention of the American West. No reversal of fortune. Niel is Marian’s age and falls in love with her but agrees to a platonic friendship out of respect for the Captain (and because she does not reciprocate his feelings.) When he discovers her affair with Ellinger, he is not so much disillusioned as wondering why it can’t be him.
At one point, he says to her, “you think I’m judging you, but I’m not,” when of course, the entire novel is his ever-changing judgement of her.
A well-acted, serviceable movie, kept alive today by Stanwyck’s reputation.
But is it any wonder that Cather absolutely despised the film fashioned from a few bits of her novel?
She hated it so much, in fact, that she had her will stipulate that her novels and stories could never be made into films or plays, even after her death.
So no actress or director will ever get another crack at Marian Forrester and A Lost Lady, which seems a shame. Some have written that the novel is unfilmable, but I disagree. Sure, with a poor director, it could become one of those films where strong emotions are conveyed with excessively long close-ups, but in the right hands, someone could do justice to Cather’s masterpiece.
Any actress would love to sink her teeth into the role of Marian Forrester.
But we will never see it, nor will we see My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or any of Cather’s other works.
Cather said that she never wanted to be associated with words in a script she hadn’t written, and accurately accused Hollywood of mutilating her great work.
But in her version of A Lost Lady, Niel judges Marian harshly for letting go of the old pioneer ways and engaging in a sort of crass commercialism in order to survive. Cather does not seem to approve of Niel’s judgement, and in fact the novel ends when he has aged and reconsidered Marian with the wisdom time brings. His bitterness has drained away and he can understand her point of view, and even hope that she is happy with her second husband, who pulled her out of poverty and draped her in furs.
Cather lived to be seventy-four and died in 1947, seemingly without ever reconsidering her harsh critique of the crassness of Hollywood.
That’s her right, of course. And her stories live on in the pages of her novels, for subsequent generations to discover.
But I can’t help but mourn the Cather films that will never be made, imperfect and crass though they may have been.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady.
Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.
Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.
In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out. I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version. Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.
In this inaugural edition of the Remake Rumble, Mae Clark and Vivian Leigh spar for the best portrayal of the doomed dancer-turned-prostitute Myra in their respective adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s World War I play Waterloo Bridge.
I first watched the original 1931 version nearly a year ago when I was writing about the pre-code films. At the time, the story interested me, but I had my hands full writing about the deliciously remorseless up-to-no-good dames in Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932).
But over the past eleven months, Waterloo Bridge stayed with me. It’s the kind of movie Universal (and Warner Brothers) liked to make in the dawning days of sound—cheaply made films about the dregs of society who view the world with a jaundiced eye but somehow manage to hang onto their dignity in an indifferent world.
Such a person is Myra, the American chorus dancer in London who falls on hard times and resorts to prostitution to keep a little food on the table and a little gas in the lamps of her dirty flat. Her quick fall from grace is symbolized when an admirer who sees her dancing in the chorus sends her a fresh, white mink that is the envy of the other dancers. Only moments later, we flash forward to her fall from grace—the mink, now tattered and seedy, is her uniform when she walks the streets.
During an air raid on Waterloo Bridge (where Myra is trolling for a client), she meets Roy Cronin, an American soldier on leave. In her flat after the raid, she and Roy share a loaf of bread. Roy takes in the squalor of her flat and offers to help her by paying her rent. He does not realize Myra’s profession despite all the obvious signs. He’s earnest and naive, and his charity insults Myra.
She throws him out, then invites him back. Like many soldiers of the time, Roy fears his life may be short and wants to live while he can. For a man like Roy, that doesn’t mean a romp with a cheap London whore. He wants to save Myra from her bad luck.
He wants to marry her the next day, before his leave is over and he has to head back to the front.
Much of the rest of the film is Roy’s almost pathetic insistence that Myra marry him.
Roy comes from a wealthy family. He can take care of her financially, she can live with his family while he is at war. Myra’s friend Kitty gleefully points out that if he dies in the war, she will receive his pension.
And she genuinely cares for Roy.
It’s her way out.
And yet Myra refuses.
Again and again she refuses, quite violently.
I will admit, I didn’t quite understand why the first time I watched the film. It struck me that she hated him, that she wanted him to leave her alone. But this time, it sunk in.
It’s not pride: Myra despises herself.
If a good man like Roy married a soiled woman, it would humiliate him and his family. Even if he can’t see it, Myra can.
I also think—though it’s not directly spelled out in the film—that Myra can see that in the long run, they would never work. He would grow to hate her.
She’s a fallen woman, lower than dirt. But to trap Roy into a marriage?
That’s a line of self-respect she cannot cross. And she cannot bear to tell him the truth about her, to lose the love she sees in his eyes.
If he was a mark, she would take him for all she could.
She can’t marry him because she loves him.
And turning down her own happiness, her own salvation, is a kind of torture.
Marrying Roy is the ultimate poisoned apple, and Myra, already fallen, refuses to take the bite.
The last twenty minutes of the film is brisk and searing.
Roy has taken Myra to visit his family, and to press his marriage suit. Roy’s mother is kind to Myra, but makes it clear that she does not approve of the marriage. In the middle of the night, Myra goes to see his mother and admits to her what she cannot admit to Roy: she is a prostitute.
The mother is kind but in full agreement that Myra must leave immediately.
Before she goes, she tells his mother, not in defiance, but as a way of making his mother bear witness to her sacrifice, “I could marry him, if I wanted to.”
“I know, my dear.”
“I just wanted you to know that.”
“Yes, I know , Myra. You see I happen to know you’re rather a fine girl.”
“Fine? I’m not.”
Roy tracks her down one last time, and having promised both herself and his mother to push him away, she tells him she hates him, that she is laughing at him. At this, she throws her head back, anchors her joined hands on her forehead, and lets out a maniacal laugh.
The first time I watched, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, overacting on Clark’s part. But I see it differently now—as a primal scream of agony, a plea to god to quit tempting her.
She ultimately agrees to marry Roy before she sends him back to war—a promise I don’t believe she ever intended to keep.
But we will never know, as Myra is killed in an air raid on Waterloo Bridge, a crowd surrounding her unseen body and the mink sprawled across the ground.
A scant nine years later, MGM remade the film with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, perhaps the hottest stars in Hollywood in 1940.
Though key aspects of the story remain the same, MGM and the strictly enforced production code wash away much of the grime of Myra’s tale.
Universal and Warner Brothers were the studios that made cheap films showcasing society’s underbelly, but MGM was filled with big budgets, glamour, and fairy tales.
Waterloo Bridge (1940) spends nearly three-quarters of the film laying the groundwork to make sure Myra doesn’t lose our sympathy when she descends into prostitution.
Vivien Leigh’s Myra is a ballerina, not a chorus girl. She meets and falls in love with Robert Taylor’s significantly more dashing and charismatic Roy Cronin.
Taylor’s Cronin takes her out to a romantic dinner, where the orchestra plays with candles burning. They dance to Auld Lang Syne, and as each section of the orchestra drops out, they extinguish their candles until Taylor and Leigh are waltzing in the dark.
It’s an enchanting scene, establishing the love between them in a way the original film never does. The two have a chemistry that Clark and Douglass simply lack.
Taylor’s Cronin comes across as romantic and in charge. His marriage proposal is one from a man who knows what he wants and is confident he will get it, where the original Cronin often comes across as desperate.
Because the MGM version insists that Taylor and Leigh fell in love before her fall into prostitution, the plot then has several contrivances as to why they cannot marry before he must go back to the front—first, the reverend tells him there can be no marriages after 3 pm, and then the next day Taylor is called unexpectedly—and immediately—back to the front before the wedding.
Thus, when Taylor’s Cronin is killed in the war, there’s no pension for poor Myra, who was fired from her job as a ballerina for missing a performance to be with Cronin.
The film documents Myra’s descent—she and roommate Kitty grow hungry, then Myra grows sick when she learns of Cronin’s death. Unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty begins hitting the streets.
When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:
Myra: “You did it for me.”
Kitty: “No, I didn’t. I’d have done it anyhow. No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last.”
Myra: “Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died.”
Kitty: “No, no you wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t. I thought of that…but I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you. We’re young and it’s good to live. Even the life I’m leading, though, God knows it–I’ve heard them call it the easiest way. I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase. I know one thing–it couldn’t have been a woman. I suppose you think…I’m dirt.”
And Kitty is right, at first. Myra does turn to prostitution.
Until Cronin shows up alive, after a year in a German prison camp.
And thus Leigh’s Myra is finally at the predicament that Clark’s Myra faced almost immediately—should she marry a man knowing what she is?
Like Clark, Leigh tells Roy’s mother the truth. This mother is more shocked than the original mother and wants to take the night to think things over.
Leigh cuts right to the heart of things when she says, “I could make you understand. But it wouldn’t help me.”
And in the end, she too dies onWaterloo Bridge, but this time she isn’t a casualty of fate. She could pursue a life of prostitution when she thought Roy was dead, but now that he’s alive she can’t live with or without him.
She steps deliberately in front of a convoy of Red Cross trucks and lets them run her down. Instead of the mink, we see her good luck charm on the street beyond the crowd surrounding her unseen body.
The 1940 version seems like it should be the better film. It has bigger stars with better chemistry. Leigh’s greatest accomplishment is that while this film was made only a year after Gone With the Wind, she doesn’t once make you think of Scarlett O’Hara in her portrayal of Myra, a feat I would’ve believed impossible.
There’s no doubt it’s the better romance.
Waterloo Bridge is a gritty story, and the 1931 version allows more of the grime to show. You can practically feel how dirty Myra’s flat is, how desperate and low class she is as she strikes matches across the wall to light her cigarette and pinches money from Roy to run the gas lamps for a few more minutes.
She’s a desperate, cynical girl. She’s a prostitute through and through, and her selfless moment with Roy is her salvation.
In the 1940 version, Vivien Leigh’s Myra is never allowed to become a prostitute, not in her bones. She’s a woman who works as a prostitute, but the script keeps reminding us that she’s “not really” this woman. They’re so worried about keeping the censors off the case and the audience’s sympathy with Myra that the plot is filled with contrivances. Her suicide at the end is as much about herself as it is her love for Roy.
Through no fault of Leigh, her Myra is just not allowed to be as interesting as Mae Clark’s version.
In the 1940 version, we never see Leigh engaging in acts of prostitution. In her first time, we see only the back of her head, and hear the man’s voice without seeing him at all.
In the freewheeling 1931 version, when a john asks Clark’s Myra what she’s doing, she gets right to business and says, “Oh, just looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.”
You could never get away with a line like that in 1940.
The 1931 story is briskly paced, jaded, and rough around the edges.
Just like the heroine of its story.
And so to my surprise, and perhaps yours, I am awarding the 1931 Waterloo Bridge the victor over its better remembered (and more beloved) 1940 remake.
Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge. High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.
They’re not frauds. There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.
And me? I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.
Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you. It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.
Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding. Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.
Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé. Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.
The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.
No one is complaining. Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.
After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle. Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer. Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.
If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films. You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.
Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him. After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons. Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.
To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger. She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.
Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.
The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.
No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep. Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out. It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.
For us. For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.
Their genius is that you don’t see the labor. You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.
Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together. There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)
So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.
And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.
No one ever will.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.
Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater. Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.
In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first. In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role. It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.
Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role. But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.
Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound. She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.
So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.
Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man. When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant. Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her. Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans.
Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child. Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia. On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.
The antics onset leaked into the newspapers. On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.”
Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints. Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.
In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it. On-set, at least. Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”
Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified. She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.
As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic. They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”
In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.
It wasn’t far from the truth.
“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”
But the tension between them works onscreen.
It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women. This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe.
Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship. Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy. In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.
In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that. Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults.
Kit (Davis):Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.
Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.
Kit:But one does. Funny, one does.
The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love. Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all. Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke. Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.
In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.
Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.
Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…
Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.
Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!
So one cannot have both critical and commercial success. Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.
In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”
Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming. A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.
Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.
As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”
Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.
Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take. Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.
In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.
The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.
And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
It’s hard to pick Bette Davis’ best film, but Jezebel will always be in the conversation. Davis plays Julie Marsden, a headstrong southern belle living in 1850’s New Orleans. She’s rich and beautiful and she knows it. She’s engaged to Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda.
She’s shrewish and obstinate—interrupting Pres at work and refusing to mind his orders. But when she wears a red satin dress to a ball when convention mandates unmarried women wear white, she pushes Pres too far. She wears the dress in a fit of pique to embarrass him, but ends up humiliating only herself.
Pres walks out on her, but Julie is confident he will return.
A year passes and the plot thickens when a wave of yellow fever breaks out.
I’d seen Jezebel twice before I viewed it for this blog. I remembered Julie’s red dress, her stubborn pride, and the quaint southern customs. The yellow fever subplot is critical to the film’s ending, but otherwise I didn’t remember the details.
But watching this time, during our own pandemic, every throwaway line about yellow fever sent shivers of recognition up my spine.
Our first inkling that something is amiss is a scene in a bar where men discuss the fever. One says he takes a shot every time the death wagon rolls by, and that’s why he’s drunk. Another says you can’t catch the fever if you’re drunk. And yet another says that there are many more cases than reported because doctors don’t want to diagnose yellow fever and cause panic.
Buck Cantrell dismisses their concerns. “Ain’t anymore yellow fever than this time last year. You never hear fever talk in racing season, do you? Why? ‘Cause folks got something better to talk about.”
The part of Dr. Fauci is played by Dr. Livingston, the forward-thinking doctor who urges Julie and her Aunt Belle to leave New Orleans for their plantation.
He tells them, “The city’s not going to be so pleasant. No parties, theaters liable to be closed as a precautionary measure.”
Julie doesn’t want to leave, dismissing the doctor as a fearmonger, but Aunt Belle remembers the last outbreak in 1830, and fears the worst.
In the end, they go to their Halcyon plantation
And finally, Pres returns—but with a Yankee bride.
Julie is devastated but not defeated. She throws a party, scheming all the while to make Pres jealous and ultimately get him back.
She eggs on Buck Cantrell, who plays the part of an anti-masker.
You see, it isn’t just the yellow fever that echoes today. The film is set about a decade before the Civil War, but the country is already deeply divided between North and South. When Pres returns after time up North with his Yankee wife, the cultural clash is on full display.
Each night, cannons boom across New Orleans.
Amy—the Yankee wife—asks why, and Cantrell tells her “It starts air currents to carry the fever away.”
Pres retorts, “They might better drain the swamps and clean up the city.”
“Is that what they do in Yankee land?” Cantrell sneers.
When Pres insinuates that the South might learn something from the North on handling the epidemic, Cantrell all but accuses Pres of betraying his Southern roots.
As the fever spreads, the lockdowns tighten. Armed guards prevent anyone from going into or out of New Orleans. We see a man shot dead for breaking the fever line.
They begin shipping fever patients off to Lazaret Island. They won’t have a chance, and will die alone in filthy conditions, but they won’t spread the fever to others.
New Orleans descends into chaos. Households lying about having the fever so they won’t be sent away, fires in the streets, wagonloads of dead and sick carried out each day.
When Pres passes out in a bar, the crowd disperses in fear. No one will help the man they’ve branded a “yellow jack.”
Julie crosses the fever line in the dead of night to get to Pres, and takes care of him as he slips into delirium.
Pres’ brother is outraged when Dr. Livingston reports Pres’ condition to the authorities, thus condemning him to a death sentence at Lazaret Island.
Dr. Livingston defends his decision by asking, “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans if folks thought there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”
We know all too well.
The film ends with Julie accompanying Pres to Lazaret Island. She has convinced Amy—and the doctor—that she should be allowed to nurse him back to health or die trying. She’s more equipped than Pres’ wife to deal with the slaves, the Creole language, and the down and dirty fighting for food and water that will be required for Pres to survive the fever and Lazaret Island.
She convinces Amy that she needs to redeem herself for the wicked things she’s done in trying to steal Pres away from her. His wife reluctantly agrees, and on one level the film ends on a note of self-sacrifice.
But…Bette Davis herself and director William Wyler make the ending more complicated than a simple redemption story. For though Julie has likely sentenced herself to death, she will be the one at Pres’ side in the end.
She has won.
It is, as writer Edmund Goulding said, “the triumph of bitchery.”
And it’s marvelous.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed
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.
He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.
And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
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.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.