Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Tall Men (1955)

When it’s on: Monday, 2 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I’m somewhat chastened to learn that, in nearly 200 entries for this site, I am yet to cover a film directed by Raoul Walsh. The man was a movie making machine, his career beginning in the earliest days of American cinema and extended into the 1960s. By the time he helmed The Tall Men, Walsh brought to the table a lengthy history and about as much experience within the industry as it was possible to have, and was probably the ideal choice for an expensive, Cinemascope production for Twentieth Century Fox.

The film I kept returning to whilst watching it was Red River, Howard Hawks’s epic about a cattle trail making its lengthy journey across North America. In truth, Red River is the superior picture, but whereas the focus there was on star John Wayne’s increasingly fractious relationship with his protege, Montgomery Clift, here it’s a love triangle. Clark Gable rescues Jane Russell from a Native American attack and, for a short time, it seems that they will go from being lovers to living together, but his dreams are too small for her and she winds up partnering ambitious Robert Ryan instead, though it’s clear who she really wants. The smouldering chemistry between Gable and Russell really makes The Tall Men tick. Without this, it’s another trail flick, a very handsome looking affair if thousands of cattle roaming across the wild American landscape is your sort of thing, but with little else to recommend it.

Gable plays Ben Allison, a veteran Colonel from the Civil War who turns up in Montana with his younger brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell) in search of gold. What they find is businessman Nathan Stark (Ryan), who they subsequently kidnap for his money belt. On their journey through a stormy winter, Stark makes the brothers an offer – join him in a cattle drive venture from Texas back to Montana and they can split the profits three ways. They agree, but not before coming across Nella (Russell), who is rescued from a Sioux attack by Ben. While they make their way back to join the others, Ben and Nella find shelter in a cabin as the blizzards move in and have a fling, but fall out when he tells her his vision is of saving up enough to own a little ranch of his own in Prairie Dog Creek, Texas, which turns out to be far too limiting for a girl of her scope. Reuniting with Clint and Stark and beginning the drive, Nella falls quickly for the latter’s grander scheme of owning Montana and joins them, continually attempting to belittle Ben along the way. The trail comes across numerous perils, including a group of jayhawkers who try to extort $5,000 from them for crossing the Kansas border, and later the hostile Sioux kingdom, but Ben is equal to all challenges and commands the instant respect of the Mexican wranglers who work for them. Stark and Ben have clear mutual trust issues, their relationship made more difficult with the presence of Nella. And then there’s Clint, the hot-headed drinker with a tendency to draw his gun after making it into his cups.

The Tall Men tops the two hour mark, and in the second half has a tendency to sag with all those scenes of the trail making its progress, no doubt ‘money shots’ as the production costs escalated, though visually the sight of all those men and beasts moving in unison are very impressively staged. The running times makes its action scenes seem few and far between, and these range from the brilliant (the Sioux attack) to the wranglers’ efforts in driving off the Jayhawkers, which is over far too quickly. I also found myself having problems with the Clint character; his motivations for disliking Stark just feel too arbitrary, like they’re serving the plot rather than having any real basis. Similarly, whilst Ryan is absolutely fine as Stark, there’s something underwritten about his character. Just how are we supposed to feel about a ruthless businessman who enters into a contract with the very people who kidnapped him? What does he see in Nella, and why, having chosen her, does he appear to be so disinterested in helping her?

Fortunately, the two main stars make up for it. Jane Russell comes across as one of those perennially undervalued actresses, perhaps rooted in her screen debut, Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw, which was heavily marketed on the strength of her bounteous figure. Clearly, she was more than a pretty face and curvaceous assets, as evidenced in her fiery gold digger in The Tall Men. Sparring verbally with Gable, she commands much of the screen and obviously relishes doing so, her blousey attitude as prominent as the smouldering looks and body for which she was famous. Gable too looks like he’s cutting loose on the screen, bringing all his natural charisma to bear in what could have been a one-note heroic role. Well into his fifties by this stage and enjoying a career Renaissance, Gable is every inch the western man with experience and an unruffled, ‘seen it all before’ demeanour. He’s the best thing in The Tall Men. Russell is a close second.

The Tall Men: ***

Mogambo (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 May (11.05 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Mogambo was John Ford’s remake of the 1932 film, Red Dust, and it’s that rarest of things when it comes to Ford flicks – average.

It had a lot going for it. Mogambo was made as Hollywood’s treatment of Africa began to change. No longer the Dark Continent of endless jungles, savage natives, Tarzan and restless danger, cameras focused more on its natural beauty and amazing wildlife, much of which appears in the film. Using Technicolor, the shoots on location are marvellous – we might have seen all this stuff many times, but a yarn in which the cast mix with African animals was something new and exotic for the mid-1950s.

Then there’s the cast. Ford was teamed with Clark Gable, reprising his star turn in Red Dust. In Mogambo, Gable plays Victor Marswell, a big game hunter whose trade is supplying animals for zoos. By now in his 50s, the star was still in good shape and his age actually suited the world weary Marswell, someone who’s supposed to have been around the block and knows the answers aren’t there. One day, he comes across good-time girl Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) taking a shower at his house. She’s here by mistake and should be the archetypal fish out of water, yet strangely her happy-go-lucky manner helps her to feel at home, not to mention raising feelings in Marswell himself.

Marswell attempts to get rid of ‘Kelly’ throughout the film (those emotions clearly aren’t welcome in his manly dwelling), but is never quite able to, either through circumstance or her resistance to being given the brush off. In the meantime, British anthropologist Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) arrives, hoping to be taken on safari by Marswell to study gorillas, and he brings along his young wife Linda (Grace Kelly). The hunter falls for her instantly, setting in place a love triangle that keeps the plot rattling along into gorilla country.

There’s plenty going along to make the show work, and in many places it does. Even the occasionally obvious mix of stock footage and the cast filmed in a Borehamwood studio set doesn’t really hurt. Both Kelly and Gardner were Oscar nominated, but while the Princess is lumbered with a role that requires her to be prim and repressed, Ava steals every scene she’s in. She’s splendid, brassy and pulling out all the stops to make the screen come alive.

Despite Ms Gardner’s best efforts, there’s no getting around the fact this is Ford in phoned-in mode. Clashes with his cast (Ford wanted Maureen O’Hara over Gardner) and a lack of interest dominated the shoot, which resulted in a meandering narrative that never really shifted into third gear. In places, it’s as though Ford simply pointed the camera in the right direction and left the cast to fend for themselves. Neither did he bother to bring the adulterous shenanigans between Gable and Kelly to life. Their’s is a passionless encounter, surely leaving audiences baffled – just like this writer – at the between-the-eyes fact that any man would choose the blousey, funny and adorable Gardner any day.

Still, Mogambo was a hit with audiences, helped by the star-studded cast but also no doubt by some cracking cinematography in Africa (photographed by Robert Surtees and Freddie Young) and an interesting soundtrack that chose tribal beats and animal noises over the usual orchestral score.

Mogambo: **