Posted in 1930s, Movies

Extracting pleasure from horror

Released 29 December 1939 in the U.S. and throughout the world over 1940–41, this sixth film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the final additions to what’s widely considered film history’s greatest year, and one of RKO’s most expensive pictures.

Unlike the 1923 Lon Chaney, Sr., version, the 1939 story doesn’t have much of a horror element, unless one considers it horror by default of Quasimodo’s deformity. It’s more historical romance and drama.

Also unlike the 1923 version, it has a happier ending, and doesn’t stuff in quite so many characters and subplots from the book.

In January 1482, King Louis IX (Harry Davenport) visits a printing shop with Jehan Frollo, Chief Justice of Paris (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). While Frollo sees this new invention as evil (as he does many other things), the King thinks it’s wonderful. Though he finds hand-written books more beautiful, they often take years to complete, whereas the printing press only takes a few weeks and is much cheaper.

The printer then shows them a new book, On the Freedom of Thought, by poet Pierre Gringoire. Frollo condemns him as a heretic, but the King believes it could be a great blessing if all of France learns to read thanks to this modern miracle.

While they’re in the shop, hunchback Quasimodo is ringing the bells. The King says he’s never heard a more beautiful rendition of Angelus.

Next day comes the Feast of Fools, which originated in proper liturgical observance but was later condemned by Church authorities because of its parody of ecclesiastical ritual and clergy. The common people of Paris turn out in droves for the celebration, which includes a play by Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien).

We then meet Clopin, King of the Beggars (Thomas Mitchell), who interrupts Gringoire’s play, and Romani dancer Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is crowned King of Fools. In the book, he’s truly crowned Pope of Fools.

The party ends when Frollo takes Quasimodo home to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Being both deformed and Deaf, this is the only safe place for Quasimodo to live.

Meanwhile, Esmeralda goes in search of the King to beg for a permit to allow her people to live in Paris, and is caught by a guard. Several soldiers chase her all the way to Notre Dame, where she finds sanctuary with Frollo’s brother Claude, Archbishop of Paris.

While she’s praying to Mary for her people’s protection, Jehan Frollo sharply rebukes her, telling her she has no right to be in a church. Luckily, she then encounters the King, who promises protection.

For her own safety, Claude takes Esmeralda to the bell tower, but Quasimodo terrifies her, and she flees. Jehan orders Quasimodo to give chase and kidnap her.

Gringoire witnesses this and asks Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and his guards to apprehend Quasimodo. Esmeralda falls in love with her rescuer Phoebus, but she’s soon compelled to marry Gringoire to save him from being hanged when he accidentally trespasses in the Court of Miracles (i.e., a slum).

Quasimodo is publicly whipped and forced to languish in the stocks. Jehan, always the fair-weather, self-serving friend, does nothing to help.

Quasimodo, who’s able to speak in a limited capacity, begs for water, and Esmeralda comes to his rescue.

That night, Esmeralda is invited to a party attended by the nobility. Jehan, who previously ordered the guards to round up and arrest all the Romani women to find his unmutual crush Esmeralda, uses this as an opportunity to get her alone and confess his feelings.

Esmeralda is much happier for stolen moments with Phoebus, who reciprocates her feelings. But an act of violence destroys this budding romance, and Esmeralda is falsely accused of the crime.

Will her innocence be proven before it’s too late?

A Universal Studios remake of the 1923 film was in the works since 1932. Originally, Boris Karloff was slated to play Quasimodo. In 1934, the studio regained interest in this project, and ultimately decided to cast Peter Lorre.

This obviously never happened, as the property was sold to MGM as a star vehicle for Paul Muni. MGM then sold the rights to RKO.

Screenwriter Sonya Levien (one of the highest-earning women in her profession in the 1930s) emphasized the parallels between persecution of Romani and Nazi treatment of Jews at the time.

Lon Chaney, Jr. was eager to play the role which made his father a superstar. Though RKO thought his screen tests were great, they felt someone else would be more suitable. British-born Charles Laughton was offered the part, but when IRS issues threatened his ability to work in the U.S., RKO offered it to Chaney again.

After his IRS problems were resolved, Laughton got the role back.

Maureen O’Hara, only 18 during filming, made her U.S. screen début as Esmeralda. Kathryn Adams had been set for the role, and was given the part of one of Fleur de Lys’s companions as compensation.

Claude Rains was set to play Jehan Frollo, but refused it after a very negative encounter with Laughton which ended their relationship.

The budget was $1.8 million ($33,497,870.50 today).

Just as in the 1923 film, Claude Frollo is a good guy while brother Jehan is the villain. In the book, it’s the opposite. The restrictive Hays Code forbade negative depiction of clergy.

Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but despite its popularity, the exorbitant costs meant it only made $100,000 profit.

Hunchback was nominated for Best Sound and Best Original Music Score at the Academies.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part VIII (Final thoughts)

Over the last eighty years, GWTW has rightly won much acclaim, both critical and popular. While much of the story is firmly grounded in the world Margaret Mitchell’s family moved in, and thus doesn’t reflect Southern society as a whole, all stories are necessarily based on the author’s own personal views and/or experience. She wrote about upper-class slave owners because that was her frame of reference. Someone whose forebears were slaves or poor whites would’ve crafted an entirely different story!

We can’t divorce a story from its cultural, social, and historical context. It’s natural to have one’s own personal reaction to something, but we can’t expect everyone to share our views. Even if we might feel uncomfortable at certain aspects, we can’t deny that was “just how things were” in that specific milieu.

If a story’s premise is no longer relevant (e.g., being unable to get in touch with someone pre-cellphone era, a couple pretending they’re married to share a hotel room in an emergency and spending the entire night avoiding actually being in the room together), think about the bigger picture.

If the overall storytelling and characterisations are strong enough, it shouldn’t matter how outdated certain aspects might be.

We also are only as good as the material we have to work with. Some people both then and now might lambaste Hattie McDaniel as an Aunt Jemima for playing so many servants, but what other options did she have? Race movies, shot by and for African–American audiences, had less reach than mainstream Hollywood films, and it’s better to make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week actually being one.

In both the book and film, Mammy is one of the most important, strongest characters. It could also be argued she’s the most consistent, and she’s the only one who can talk any sense into Scarlett and hold her in check. She’s hardly a one-dimensional stereotype. Her character has so much humanity and warmth.

Of course I wish there had been more opportunities for minorities to play major roles outside of race films, and that white actors hadn’t been made up to look Black, Chinese, Arab, etc., while shunting actual members of those races into secondary roles in the same films or bypassing them altogether. However, that’s unfortunately how film history unfolded. We can’t change what happened.

Within that context, we should be happy about performers like Hattie McDaniel and Anna May Wong who made the most of those limitations to demonstrate great talent and dignity. I’d much rather see an African-American playing a railway porter or maid as a fully-rounded, strong character than used as cheap material for laughs or depicted as a villain.

People who latch onto needing everything to fall in line with 21st century Woke™ sensibilities are missing out on a lot of truly great art from the past. No one living in reality denies GWTW paints an unrealistic picture of the Old South and (particularly in the book) has some racist content. But that’s not why people are still voraciously reading, watching, and studying it eighty years later.

This is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story where the journey through life is the plot, set against the epic backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While it can also be classified as a romance novel, the love story is just one aspect of many. GWTW is the complete package and can’t be tied into just one genre.

This is the story of a determined young woman who starts out a pampered, spoilt brat and evolves into a strong survivor who won’t let circumstances keep her down. In an era and place where so-called respectable women didn’t do the half of what Scarlett does, she claws her way to the top to survive and thrive. Scarlett won’t give up Tara, or her very life, without a hell of a fight.

And so what if it isn’t exactly in harmony with modern life? Every story is ultimately a product of its own time and author’s biases. What matters is the deeper message, and how people across time and culture react to it. People like Dante and Shakespeare also wrote very much for the people of their own time and place, but they’ve become writers for all time and peoples because the themes and characters resonate so deeply regardless of origin.

And that is why GWTW still matters.

Posted in 1930s, Books, Historical fiction, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part VII (Differences between book and film)

While no film adaptation of a book can be perfect, I rate GWTW right up there with Fiddler on the Roof and the original 1921 version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as one of the best. It retains most of the important storylines and characters, doesn’t leave gaping holes where elements were left out, and stays true to the spirit of the story.

Since the book is over 1,000 pages long (a length more than justified by the epic scope), naturally everything couldn’t be squeezed into even a very long film. Among the aspects left out or handled differently:

1. Scarlett has three kids, not just one. In the book, she has one child by each of her husbands. Her firstborn is Wade Hampton Hamilton, born in early 1862, and her second child is Ella Lorena Kennedy. Bonnie is her third child. Alexandra Ripley’s horrible sequel Scarlett gives her a fourth child, Cat. The less said about that, the better!

2. Scarlett’s sister Suellen marries Will Benteen, a legless veteran who works at Tara after the war, and has a child, Susie, with him.

3. The men are in the KKK, and go out to lynch African–Americans to avenge the attack on Scarlett in Shantytown. Prior, Rhett also matter-of-factly admits he lynched an African–American for acting “uppity.”

4. Mr. O’Hara’s deadly riding accident happens in the wake of Suellen trying to get him to sign papers proving he’s pro-Yankee, not chasing off Tara’s former overseer. Scarlett also doesn’t witness his death.

5. Scarlett vomits in front of Rhett while riding with him during her second pregnancy.

6. The prelude to the possible marital rape scene is a lot darker and more violent.

7. There’s no rain while Scarlett’s party flees to Atlanta.

8. Scarlett’s character is a lot darker and more complex, and her motivations are more fully explored.

9. Scarlett and Charles marry the day before Ashley and Melanie, not afterwards. It was a huge scandal in that era for couples to marry against the order of their engagements.

10. Rhett’s relationship with brothel madam Belle Watling is a lot more overt.

11. Pork, Mr. O’Hara’s valet and first slave, has a wife, Dilcey.

12. Charles is courting Ashley’s sister Honey before Scarlett turns his head. In the movie, he’s courting Ashley’s sister India, and Honey never appears.

13. Scarlett, not Melanie, offers her wedding ring to the Confederate cause at the Atlanta Bazaar first. She can’t wait to be rid of that unwanted thing!

14. Melanie reads from Les Misérables, not David Copperfield, the night of the raid on Shantytown.

15. Scarlett’s realisation that she loved a fantasy of Ashley instead of the man himself is less rushed.

16. A LOT of racist content, including many uses of the N-word in the narrative (not just dialogue).

17. Will Benteen, not Mammy. holds Scarlett back from running to welcome Ashley home after the war.

18. Scarlett has an ex-con driver named Archie. He later reappears when he catches Scarlett and Ashley innocuously embracing at the sawmill, with disastrous results.

19. Scarlett already visited Atlanta prior to moving there.

20. Bonnie’s fear of the dark was created by Mammy, who told her “ghosts and buggerboos” lurk in the dark and might hurt her.

21. Rhett’s final words are “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” No “frankly” in there.

22. Several age-gap relationships which were quite unusual for the era, even among the upper-class. Scarlett’s parents are 28 years apart; Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet; Frank Kennedy is 30 years older than Suellen, the original object of his affections, and 28 years older than Scarlett.

While some of these alterations take away important layers and details which make the book so great, it was necessary to condense this doorstopper. I also 100% agree with the decision to significantly tone down the racist aspects and not mention ages. Very few book to screen adaptations are this fantastic.

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Historical fiction, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part VI (Historical accuracy)

Margaret Mitchell did a great deal of historical research for her novel, which didn’t stop after she found a publisher. She spent six months checking her facts during the editing process. Much of her research was conducted at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, since razed to build the Atlanta–Fulton Public Library. Its replacement, in the same spot, has a permanent Margaret Mitchell exhibit on the third floor.

But just as with all hist-fic, there are some elements which were uncommon for the era. Unlike many historical novels and films today, though, they’re within the realm of plausibility, and other characters react to them as the anomalies they are, with the obvious notable exception of the romanticised Old South.

The Atlanta Historical Society has hosted many exhibits related to GWTW, among them 1994’s “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths.” Subjects explored included “How true to life were the slaves in Gone with the Wind?” and “Was Scarlett a Lady?”

In many ways, Scarlett perfectly fits the mold of a Southern belle. She dresses the part, understands the importance of marriage, isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, steps up as a volunteer nurse (much as she hates the job), comports herself with dominance over her house slaves.

In other ways, however, Scarlett violates several codes of her culture. It was extremely unusual in that era for white women of means to work outside the home, let alone run a business like Scarlett’s sawmill. She also flouts the dress code with her low-cut gowns, and tries to resist Mammy making her stuff herself before the barbecue near the beginning of the story. Scarlett doesn’t think a normal appetite is unladylike.

In contrast, Melanie fully embodies the archetype of the Southern belle, though her life is much less interesting in consequence. Melanie doesn’t seek work outside the home apart from wartime nursing; she’s utterly devoted to her husband and child; she’s self-sacrificing to a fault; she’s extremely loyal and trusting. She naturally fits the mold, whereas Scarlett chafes against much of it.

Though ages aren’t mentioned in the film, there are several age-gap relationships in the book, and it’s obvious Scarlett is much younger than her second husband Frank even without the film specifying their ages. Frank originally fancied Scarlett’s sister Suellen, who’s about thirty years his junior. Scarlett’s parents are also 28 years apart, and Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet.

Both Scarlett and Melanie marry at all of sixteen, early in the story. As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t common for 19th century women to marry that young, nor to much-older husbands. On average, first-time brides after Antiquity, with certain specific, notable exceptions (e.g., Medieval Eastern Europe, the U.S. pioneer West), were 18–25, usually near the upper end of that range. Their grooms were typically 1–6 years older, not old enough to be their dads.

In upper-class society, however, there was more precedent of girls marrying in their late teens, and to much-older men. Though this was still unusual, it was somewhat less unusual than in the non-wealthy world.

Even with that caveat, the age gaps in GWTW still weren’t typical! Whereas it might be relatively common to find, e.g., an 18-year-old marrying a 32-year-old, or a 21-year-old marrying a 30-year-old, it was highly unusual to find the massive gaps of GWTW.

Mourning practices in the Victorian era were strict and highly regulated. Scarlett flouts custom by dancing and attending a charity function while wearing widow’s weeds. Widows were expected to wear black for four years, often the rest of their lives. Young, attractive widows transitioning to colours like grey, lilac, and lavender “too soon” were assumed to be sexually promiscuous.

Those mourning relatives, friends, employees, and acquaintances were subject to strict rules too, albeit not as severe as those for widow(er)s. Melanie only has to wear black for six months after her brother Charles dies.

As mentioned in Part V, GWTW takes a very rosy-coloured view of the Old South, one atypical for both races. Though Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories of this vanished world and did a lot to further popularise that image through her novel, even she admitted it wasn’t common.

In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, “It’s hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn’t all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.”

Like many people of her generation, however, she believed the Dunning School of Reconstruction, which falsified history in a very damaging way and supported the KKK. It was a very wise decision for the screenwriters to significantly tone down that aspect of the book!

Posted in 1930s, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part V (Negative responses)

As with any film, GWTW too has had its detractors over the last eighty years. Not just people who felt, e.g., the film should’ve been trimmed down or that the second half is weaker than the first, but people who hate(d) it altogether.

And given the time and place in which it’s set, coupled with Margaret Mitchell’s own biases as a product of that setting, one can kind of guess exactly what most of that criticism revolves around.

Many African–Americans, both then and now, haven’t had the most positive views on GWTW. They felt the slave characters were too negatively stereotyped instead of complex, three-dimensional people, along with depicting the Old South through rose-colored glasses. Additionally, there’s a strong element (even stronger in the book) of the most sympathetic slaves being those who accept subservience and don’t leave their former owners after being emancipated.

Walter Francis White, executive director of the NAACP, put Hattie McDaniel on blast after she accepted the Academy for Best Supporting Actress, calling her an Uncle Tom. In turn, she fired back by famously saying she’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week actually being one.

Hattie also questioned his qualifications to speak on any subject regarding African–Americans, seeing as he was an octoroon (one-eighth Black) with very light features. He had far more European than African ancestry, and easily passed for white.

While there were demonstrations against the film in some cities, and heated criticism which included calling GWTW “a weapon of terror against Black America,” other African–Americans were very happy Hattie won that award. They hoped it might lead to increased cinematic recognition for their people, more chances to play important, multi-faceted roles.

Sadly, it would be twenty-four years until another African–American won an Academy, Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field in 1964.

Though the film significantly tones down the racism of the book (which I’ll go into more detail about in a later post), it regardless still retains the depiction of an Old South that wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people, either white or Black. As I mentioned in my BOAN posts in 2015, the now-debunked Dunning School of Reconstruction was very much in vogue during this era.

The Dunning School wasn’t just a POV sympathetic to the Southern side of Reconstruction, but falsified history akin to denying the Shoah or Armenian Genocide. It cast white Southerners as saintly victims, while the only good slaves were happy to be slaves and loved their masters. Anyone of either race who opposed slavery and wanted equal rights for African–Americans was an enemy.

While there were obvious failures during Reconstruction, legit corruption, and a dearth of the reconciliatory spirit Pres. Lincoln hoped for, the Dunning School took true instances of bad behavior way out of context and acted like that constantly happened in every single instance. It was also loaded with ugly racism, esp. in depicting the KKK as knights in shining armor, even as they lynched African–Americans.

While there certainly were people who treated their slaves very well and had mutually harmonious relationships with them, there were others who abused their slaves horrifically, à la Simon Legree. Between those two extremes were a wide variety of experiences.

In 1994, the Atlanta Historical Society hosted an exhibit entitled “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths,” including an exploration of the question “How True to Life Were the Slaves in GWTW?” Through documentary evidence, they showed Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of “happy darkies” was a myth, just as false as the claim all slaveowners were Simon Legrees.

It obviously doesn’t make slavery morally right, but it shows, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s historically and intellectually dishonest to pretend either extreme was the norm.

The racist material also raises difficult questions about whether we can really condemn someone for having strongly-held, long-established, very consistent views which, while now recognised as inaccurate, wrong, offensive, etc., were a matter-of-fact product of that time and place.

For example, many people find it hard to believe the Torah allows slavery when the Israelites just escaped slavery. But in Antiquity, slavery was a fact of life. No one could imagine a society without it, since there were no counterexamples. The best one could do was establish laws about treating slaves humanely and offering them freedom after a certain point.

By and large, we live what we know. Of course Margaret Mitchell had a very rose-colored view of the Old South and believed that was how most people lived, since she grew up hearing those stories and was from a very privileged family. Someone from a poor white family or descendant of former slaves would’ve written a much different novel!

Another sticking point with many is the suggested marital rape. Just as in the prelude to the rape in The Son of the Sheik, there’s absolutely no doubt as to what’s about to happen.

However, unlike Yasmin, Scarlett seems to be in euphoric afterglow in the next scene. In the book, it’s described as the most intense, powerful sexual act of Scarlett’s life, something she didn’t object to for long, and wasn’t forced into after the initial impetus. She wanted Rhett to take the initiative and have his way with her.

Also, in this era, rape was the only kind of sex a so-called “respectable” woman could fantasize about, since it was forced on her, not something she actively sought out. As awful as this sounds today, it was “just how things were.”

Bottom line: While everyone has a right to exercise free speech and judge things as we see fit (since personal reactions and feelings can never be policed), we also can’t divorce art from the cultural and historical context in which it was created. What was radical in 1920 may seem quaint or cringey today, but the big picture should matter most.