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. 

The Women: Jungle Red Claws

#30 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Women turns on a gimmick—no men appear in the film.  It boasts the trio of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles.

The screenplay is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on the popular play written by Clare Boothe.  It is directed by a man, the delightful George Cukor who was known as the “women’s director,” and one we’ll meet again in future films.

And yet the joke on the poster is that the movie filled with 135 women is “all about men.”

This isn’t true.  Though the main plot line is a fight over a man (the entirely offscreen Mr. Stephen Haines), the film is an exploration of women’s relationships.

The lead actresses in this comedy were in very different phases of their careers.

The wonderful Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, the happily married wife and mother who discovers her husband is carrying on an affair with a shopgirl.  Shearer was nearing the end of her career and The Women is her last significant film.

Joan Crawford is deliciously devious as Crystal Allen, the ruthless shopgirl in the husband stealing business.  Crawford was in the middle of her long career, still one of MGM’s top stars and six years away from her comeback in Mildred Pierce.

And Rosalind Russell stole the show as Mary Haines’ friend and an insufferable gossip.  Russell was a relative newcomer and a year away from her star making turn in His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.

(You can also get your first glimpse at a very young Joan Fontaine, whose performance here shows why she was cast as the naive and unsophisticated Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)

Mary Haines is the last one to know of her husband’s infidelity, and learns of it from the woman who does her nails, rather than any of her wide circle of friends who have been gossiping about it for days.  The film tracks how Mary loses Stephen to Crystal and ultimately gains him back again with the help of her friends.

But make no mistake—this is no feminist manifesto.

“I’ve had two years to grow claws, Mother. Jungle red!”

When Mary first discovers her husband’s infidelity, she is ready to confront him and perhaps divorce him.  Yet her mother’s advice is to pretend she knows nothing about it, continue being the perfect wife, and wait until Stephen gets it out of his system.

(You don’t forget you’re in 1939 when you’re watching this film.)

She does confront Crystal, and the movie is a delightful romp of gossipy harpies, wild divorceés, and vicious catfights.

It’s a funny yet quite unflattering view of women.  

I recommend it heartily.

And despite all the real progress women have made in the world since 1939, there are some uncomfortable truths about women—and men—that are as true today as they were in Clare Booth’s day.  It blunts it with humor, of course, but The Women points out that sometimes your friends are thrilled by your misfortune.  That though we all disavow spreading ugly rumors, most relish delivering a juicy morsel of gossip to someone not yet in the know.  And that when men reach a certain age, their eyes—if not their hands—often stray to novel (and younger) flesh.

It’ll make you laugh.  If you put aside 2020 values, it’ll make you laugh even more.

For people who don’t see the point in watching movies that were new when their grandmother was a child, it can be difficult to explain their appeal.  As Dr. Phil says, “you either get it or you don’t.”  There’s the fashion—the hats, the cigarettes, the dressing gowns.  The glamour of the old Hollywood stars that have that something that still draws you in.  The mystique of black and white.

All this is true.  But old movies are also a treasure hunt, and sometimes they throw up a nugget that is so spectacular it reminds you these films are time capsules and history as much as entertainment.  Something that hits a 2020 audience much different than a 1939 audience.

There’s such a moment in The Women—it comes near the end of the film, when Mary and her mother are discussing the benefits of living alone.  

Mary’s mother says, “Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”

The throwaway line is played for a minor laugh.  It goes without saying that in 1939, the swastika was not yet a universally denounced symbol of hate and genocide.  Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, of course, and World War II would begin that same year.  (Though U.S. involvement would not begin for several years.)  It shows how quickly the world can change—and perhaps how the United States had buried its head in the sand at what it initially saw as Europe’s private affair.

It’s a moment that made me sit up straight and bark out a stunned laugh of surprise.  It’s not funny, of course.

But then again, in 1939 it was.  These films are a product of their time, the same as the films we see today.

It makes me wonder what we’re laughing at today that will make audiences cringe in eighty years.  Not the stuff that is deliberately provocative—as I don’t believe the swastika line was in The Women.  The stuff we’re not even blinking an eye at that will make the folks of 2101 happy they don’t live in the unenlightened, backward world of 2020 that we believe is so modern.  They’ll marvel at how slow paced and simple our fast and crazy modern world is.

Yes, even with our contentious election and pandemic and racial unrest.  Knowing how the story ends, they’ll smear over 2020 with the grease of nostalgia, just as we do with the movies of 1939.  For even with their glamorous hats and dressing gowns, that generation lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

Perhaps this is too serious a blog for a film that is really just a rollicking good time and should be enjoyed as such.  It’s a movie that highlights the talents of three major stars and a director, and is a worthy jewel in the crown of 1939.

(And please, don’t bother with the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan.  Trust me on this.)

Dark Victory: “Prognosis Negative”

#29 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

In 1939, all the stars aligned in Hollywood.  There were 365 films released that year, and an astronomical number of them became classics.  If you found someone who knew next to nothing about classic cinema and asked them to name as many old movies as they could think of, there is no doubt they would list one—probably more—released in 1939.

By 1939, the talkies had hit their stride.  With ten years of practice, the first wave of Hollywood directors, writers, and stars were at their peak.  The production code had cleaned up the filth, making movies respectable.  Many great European filmmakers fled Hiter’s encroaching Nazism and brought their talents to Hollywood.

Snuggled between the Depression and the start of World War II, eighty million people a week went to watch their favorite stars in black and white.  With no television, the big screen was the only screen.  On any given week, six out of every ten people went to the movies.  Compare that to one in ten today (or zero in ten since the pandemic hit.)  For your twenty-three cent ticket, you got a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel, and two feature films.

For part V of this blog, we’ll revisit the best of the best from 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.

And where else would we start than with Bette Davis?

Davis released four films in 1939, but Dark Victory is undoubtedly the best.

Honing her craft since 1931, by Dark Victory Davis has come into her own.  She plays Judith Traherne, a rich young socialite who discovers she has a fatal brain tumor.  

Judith Trahern displays everything we want in a Bette Davis character—the hip first walk, the clipped speech, those silver dollar eyes, the endless smoking and fidgeting.  

Everything about Bette Davis—and Judith Trahern—demands your undivided attention.

Judith falls in love with her doctor, who conceals her fatal condition from her.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Judith had discovered the truth of her illness.  She takes temporary refuge from facing her impending early death by raging over her doctor’s (and fiance’s) lies.

At lunch, when it is time to order, a drunk Judith declares that she’ll have a “large order of prognosis negative.”

The look on the doctor’s face says it all.  Busted.

But what makes the film special is the second half.  Judith doesn’t just wait to die—she lives.

And when Judith’s death comes, she rises to meet it.  She sends away those who love her.  Blind, she walks up the stairs and crawls into bed.  Facing her fate with solitary dignity will be her dark victory over death.