The First of the Few (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 3 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

The First of the Few was retitled as Spitfire for its release in some territories outside Britain, notably America. The suggestion is that US viewers knew of the British fighter plane well enough, but were less familiar with the film’s original name, a play on Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few‘ comment about the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. The ‘first’ of the title refers to R. J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer who designed racing seaplanes and was ultimately responsible for developing the Spitfire itself.

Returning to Britain after World War Two erupted, Leslie Howard shrugged off the matinee image that had been crafted for him in Hollywood to become quite the emotional figurehead. The diffident figure he cut in Gone with the Wind, by some distance the least memorable of the principal players in that epic, was suddenly an active participant in propagandist and morale-boosting efforts. He appeared in movies, made many public appearances, all to defy the Nazis and defend his realm. Howard became so prominent that no less a figure than Lord Haw-Haw denounced him over the airwaves. Increasingly the actor was taking fuller roles in his productions. He shared directorial duties on 1938’s Pygmalion and made Pimpernel Smith in 1941. The First of the Few followed in 1942.

The film was supported by no less a figure than Churchill, who asked the RAF to give the production unprecedented access to its planes and airfields. This seal of approval ensured The First of the Few would fulfil its positive image of both Mitchell and his cause, albeit in romanticising his story. Howard played Mitchell as a softly spoken English gentleman, really a stylised version of himself, whereas in reality the engineer was a tough, working class Potteries man, given to bouts of barely controlled rage and torrents of abusive language. This might not have suited the image Howard wanted to project, though he did seize on Mitchell’s work ethic, the fact he’d driven himself into an early grave when he continued to work on the Spitfire despite the ravages of rectal cancer. In the film, the nature of Mitchell’s illness is never disclosed, but his determination to get the Spitfire finished rather than take a long break for his own health is shown, and adds a suitable heroic note to the man’s efforts. More importantly, the film gave this then rather obscure figure a platform, bringing him to public acclaim as an unsung champion, which given the success of the fighter plane was no less than he deserved.

Mitchell’s story is told in flashback. A squadron of pilots is taking a short break in between shooting down German attackers. They’re met by David Niven’s Geoffrey Crisp, who begins telling them Mitchell’s story, the implication being that it’s one few people knew. Crisp was an invention of the film, an amalgamation of a number of test pilots who worked alongside him during the years, most notably Jeffrey Quill who made an uncredited cameo as the pilot performing those acrobatic leaps and daring dives in the test of the Spitfire. Crisp, a ‘lifelong friend’ of Mitchell’s, works as his pilot during the 1920s, a period of growing success in the development of seaplanes that came to regularly win competitions and break speed records. Taking a holiday to Germany in the early 1930s, the pair meet Nazis, who unsubtly prophesise that the Fatherland will one day dominate Europe. Mitchell and Crisp see the obvious danger, and return home to work flat out on a fighter plane that will eventually be capable of defending the island. As his bouts of sickness increase, Mitchell sacrifices himself for the cause. Told by his doctor that he can last no longer than eight months without a significant rest, Mitchell declares that it’s time enough and carries on.

Though embellished, the story manages to take in Mitchell’s struggle to get his plane worked on in spite of a government more focused on appeasement and saving money, which strikes a true note about the period. He’s supported financially by Lady Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce), an aristocratic patriot who like Mitchell can see the threat posed by the fascists, and believes in his dream. The film’s dig at the ostrich-like government of the pre-war years reflects Britain’s own withering attitude towards its officials, who only come to appreciate where things are heading at the last minute, when it’s almost too late to make effective plans to counter Germany, along with the vision of people like Mitchell, who ‘got it’ early enough.

There’s a temptation with films like this to mock it, in particular the perception it creates of some misty-eyed, half remembered past when pipe-smoking Professorial types could be heroes, imbued with the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality that is exhorted as a uniquely British virtue.  In contrast the Germans, depicted in the film’s entirely fictionalised episode, are shown as megalomaniac villains, determined to break the Treaty of Versailles and make their country great again, no matter who suffers in the process. It’s a cartoonish representation and a bit of a false step, as elsewhere the film attempts to strike an authentic note in recounting Mitchell’s story, and rather carefully builds his image as a dedicated and quietly resolute engineer. He’s shown as possessing that vanguard British virtue, getting to where he does thanks to years of hard work and an inventive mind. The concept that will eventually blossom into the Spitfire is inspired by birds, Mitchell’s aim to develop planes that are based on their natural, physical ‘engineering’ at a time when everyone else was a long way behind technically.

The First of the Few is directed in semi-documentary style, opening with a narration about Germany before depicting Mitchell’s life, his achievements and pitfalls, in episodic snapshots. Crisp appears to have been created as a more easily digestible cinematic character and Niven plays him just right, giving him personality and a winning charm as he makes to woo a succession of ladies, most of whom turn out to be already married.

But it’s Howard’s film, even if he plays Mitchell as a rather typically British one-noter of determination and bluff. It’s an encapsulation of the English ideal, the sort celebrated by the Daily Mail and efficiently performed, Howard’s traditional ‘under playing’ transforming him into the embodiment of pluck and virtue.

It’s easy enough, watching this, to see the reasons for his success during this period, and his status as someone Germany might want to see out of the way. Less than a year after its release and several days before it debuted in American theatres, Howard was dead, most likely shot down by Nazi Junkers while on a flight from Portugal to Britain. Rumours about this persisted. One conspiracy theory suggested he was sacrificed as Churchill was on a plane at the same time and British Intelligence deliberately leaked that Howard’s flight was carrying a VIP. Another speculated that Enigma messages intercepted by code-breakers revealed the Nazi plan to take Howard down, and the difficult decision was taken to let it happen so that Britain’s ability to decode the machine would not be revealed to the enemy. Most likely it was down to an error of judgement, a fateful act that would normally have involved Howard’s plane being escorted to France and its occupants taken as prisoners.

The First of the Few: ***

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: ****