Posted in 1930s, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part III (Behind the scenes in a nutshell)

In July 1936, producer David O. Selznick bought film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s immensely popular historical saga, a mere month after its publication. Many other studio execs had declined this project, little realising just how popular it would immediately become. Selznick paid $50,000.

Casting proved to be anything but simple, as everyone wanted a chance to star in such an epic film. In particular, there was fierce competition for the two leading roles. Since the studio system made it very difficult for actors under contract at one studio to work for another, production was delayed till late 1938.

Selznick had wanted Clark Gable to be Rhett from the jump, but MGM was loath to lend him to other studios. Gary Cooper was also considered, but his own boss, Samuel Goldwyn, likewise refused to lend him elsewhere. Because Selznick wanted Gable and no one else, he agreed to his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer’s pricy deal in August 1938:

Pay Gable’s weekly salary and give half the profits to MGM in exchange for $1,250,000 (half the film’s budget). Meanwhile, Loew’s, Inc. (MGM’s parent company) would release the film.

During the very long production delay, Selznick drummed up publicity and revised the script. He particularly focused on a $100,000 casting call for Scarlett. Though this proved to be ultimately ineffective, it created great buzz. The original casting call screened 1,400 unknowns, and then the big names began competing for the role.

Thirty-one women made it to actual screen tests, including Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Barrymore (John Barrymore’s daughter by his second marriage), Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, and Vivien Leigh. The lattermost two became the finalists, and the only ones tested in Technicolor.

Margaret Mitchell most wanted Miriam Hopkins to play Scarlett, but in her mid-thirties, she was far too old. In the book, Scarlett ages from 16–28, thus ideally calling for someone in her early twenties.

According to urban legend, Paulette Goddard lost the role because of controversy regarding her relationship with Charles Chaplin. To this day, there’s still doubt about whether they were ever legally married, or just lived together. However, Selznick knew Vivien Leigh was cohabiting with Laurence Olivier because their respective spouses refused to grant divorces.

The real reason for not giving Paulette the role was apparently Selznick’s worry over legal issues arising from competing contracts with his studio and Chaplin’s studio.

Vivien Leigh’s casting was announced 13 January 1939.

Since the source material is over 1,000 pages long, there needed to be judicious cuts for the screenplay. Sidney Howard’s original script would’ve resulted in a film over six hours long, but he refused to leave New England and come to California to make on-set revisions. Thus, various local writers shouldered the task.

Director George Cukor was fired three weeks into production and replaced by Victor Fleming, who was simultaneously directing The Wizard of Oz. When Fleming voiced dislike of the script, Selznick hired Ben Hecht to do a complete rewrite in five days.

By the end of the week, he’d revised the first half. Selznick began work on the second half, but after falling behind schedule, Howard was brought back for a week.

Since there’d been so many pens on the script, there was questioning as to whom should receive screen credit. The decision was sadly made for the studio when Howard was killed in a tractor accident at age 48, four months before the première.

Urban legend claims Selznick was fined $5,000 by the infamous Hays Office for Rhett’s famous final line, but in reality, the Motion Picture Association passed an amendment on 1 November 1939 to forbid the words “hell” and “damn,” unless their usage “shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore … or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”

The score was composed by Max Steiner, and became his longest work to date, at two hours and thirty-six minutes. He also spent the most amount of time writing it, twelve weeks. Five conductors were hired.

Today, the theme most people associate with the film is that of Tara, though Steiner wrote two other themes, one for Scarlett and Ashley, and another for Ashley and Melanie. Interestingly, he wrote no theme for Scarlett and Rhett.

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part II (General overview continued)

After the Intermission, we rejoin Scarlett in the final stages of the Civil War. She and her sisters Suellen and Carreen shoulder most of the burden of keeping Tara running, while Melanie is still very weakened from childbirth and spends most of her time abed.

Melanie wants to make herself useful, though, and gets out of bed more than once. On one of these occasions, a Union soldier breaks in searching for valuables. Scarlett shoots him with the gun Rhett gave her while they were fleeing Atlanta and relieves the corpse of his money and valuables. She and Melanie then dispose of the body, promising to tell no one what happened.

When the war ends, Tara becomes a way station for returning Confederate soldiers, much to Scarlett’s displeasure. One of them is Frank Kennedy, Suellen’s much-older suitor. (In the book, he’s about thirty years older.) Another soldier brings news of Ashley, who’s in a prison camp. Scarlett is thrilled when he arrives a few months later, but Mammy holds her back from rushing to embrace him.

Reconstruction brings high taxes which threaten Tara’s ownership. Scarlett begs Ashley to run away to Mexico with her, and he kisses her and admits he still loves her. However, he refuses to leave the sickly Melanie and their little boy Beau. Ashley also tells Scarlett she should love Tara more than anyone, and adds he plans to move his family to NYC to start over.

Scarlett, always prone to dramatics, pitches a fit which draws Melanie’s attention. To cover what really happened, Scarlett says she wants Melanie and Ashley to stay at Tara to help her, and Ashley, weak-willed as always, gives in without a battle.

Jonas Wilkerson, Tara’s former overseer, makes Scarlett an offer which she angrily refuses. Mr. O’Hara chases after him on horseback as he departs. Sadly, he’s killed when the horse falls while trying to jump a fence.

After the funeral, Scarlett turns to Rhett for help, believing he has more than enough money to save Tara. However, he’s now in jail in Atlanta, and will be hanged unless he turns over his Confederate gold. His prewar money is in London banks.

Mammy makes Scarlett a new dress from a green curtain for the occasion, and accompanies her so she won’t get into trouble in the big city or at this minimum security prison. Scarlett pretends to be Rhett’s sister.

Scarlett pretends life at Tara is swell, but Rhett knows it’s a ruse when he sees her work-worn hands. This doesn’t deter Scarlett at all; on the contrary, she shamelessly begs for money and even offers to become Rhett’s mistress. Rhett refuses, saying if he helped her, he’d get in a lot of trouble.

While walking through Atlanta afterwards, Scarlett encounters Frank Kennedy, now a successful businessman in the hardware and wood industry. He tells Scarlett he’s saving all his money to marry Suellen and bring her to Atlanta.

Never one to let an opportunity slip through her fingers, Scarlett lies Suellen is married to another man, and offers herself as a wife. Mammy is horrified, and Suellen is heartbroken, but Frank’s money saves Tara.

Scarlett becomes very wealthy from the lumber and hardware store she manages, though she refuses credit to impoverished neighbors. Thanks to the cake deals she makes with Northern businessmen, she’s able to buy a sawmill, and Tara gradually returns to its glory.

Scarlett also employs convicts and a former prison overseer. Ashley doesn’t like this at all, but his protests hold no sway.

Sometime later, Scarlett runs across Rhett, who’s now free and once again wealthy. He tells he she could’ve married him and shared in the riches if she’d waited, but Scarlett brushes him off and continues on to the sawmill.

Rhett warns her about travelling through a shantytown on the way there, full of Army deserters and dangerous criminals, but Scarlett insists the gun he gave her will protect her.

Scarlett gets attacked in the shantytown, before she has a chance to pull out the gun. Big Sam, a former slave at Tara, rescues her from an attempted rape.

Word gets around quickly, and the menfolk go to a supposed political meeting. During the evening, Rhett visits and says Ashley and Frank are in a vigilante group which is in danger of being busted by the Union Army. In the book, they’re in the KKK, and lynch the guys who attacked Scarlett.

Melanie gives Rhett the address, and later that night he returns with Ashley and Dr. Meade. They’re accompanied by Union soldiers, who were fed a fish story about a visit to Belle Watling’s brothel.

After the soldiers leave, Ashley reveals he’s wounded, and Rhett says Scarlett’s attackers are dead. Scarlett cares only for Ashley’s welfare, and is shocked back into reality when Rhett says Frank is lying dead in the road.

Several days later, Rhett visits again and proposes to Scarlett. She says she’ll always love only Ashley, but that she’ll marry Rhett for his money. Rhett doesn’t care about the lack of love, since they’re two of a kind. They honeymoon in New Orleans, and Tara is restored to its former splendor after their return. Rhett also buys a mansion in Atlanta.

Rhett and Scarlett soon have a daughter, Bonnie Blue, whom Rhett absolutely dotes on. Scarlett, meanwhile, wants no more children and declares she’ll never sleep with Rhett again. Rhett threatens divorce, but relents for the sake of avoiding scandal.

In 1871, Scarlett and Ashley are caught in an embrace, which sets in motion a disastrous, snowballing series of events threatening Scarlett and Rhett’s already shaky marriage. By the time Scarlett realises Rhett is the only man for her, it might be too late to salvage their relationship.

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Movies, U.S. Civil War

GWTW at 80, Part I (General overview)

One of the greatest films of the greatest year of cinematic history premièred near the very end, 15 December 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta. This epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic sweeping saga of the Old South is one of those films like The Wizard of Oz, so well-known it feels almost pointless to bother giving a recap. Has anyone not seen GWTW at least once?!

On the eve of the Civil War, pretty, popular Southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives the life of Riley on her family’s plantation Tara in Clayton County, Georgia. The talk of impending war bores Scarlett terribly, and she abandons her suitors to talk with her father in the fields.

Mr. O’Hara delivers a devastating piece of news—there’s a barbecue coming up at nearby Twelve Oaks to celebrate the engagement of cousins Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though many men are competing for her hand, Scarlett only has eyes for the milquetoast Ashley, and is determined to stop this marriage from happening.

On the day of the barbecue, Scarlett insists on wearing a dress with a plunging neckline and refuses to eat the tray of food her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) gives her. “Respectable” women weren’t allowed to demonstrate real appetites, esp. not in front of men. Thus, Scarlett isn’t supposed to eat anything at the barbecue and “ruin” her figure. (Little wonder so many girls and women have eating disorders!)

Scarlett wins the fight about the dress, but Mammy still makes her eat the food to ruin her appetite and remain unnaturally thin.

At the barbecue, Scarlett flirts with all the single gentlemen, hoping to make Ashley jealous. Then, during the ladies’ nap, Scarlett sneaks away to meet Ashley in the parlour. Her attempts to turn Ashley’s head and get him to jilt Melanie are all in vain.

There’s a long tradition of marriages between Ashley and Melanie’s families, since they’re so well-educated, intellectual, and serious-minded. While Scarlett lives for social life and superficial things, Ashley and Melanie both enjoy discussing ideas, debating politics, and reading great literature.

Though Ashley rebuffs Scarlett’s advances, this doesn’t deter her at all; on the contrary, it makes her even more determined to win his love. Ashley’s wishy-washiness doesn’t help matters, since he admits he’s attracted to Scarlett and kind of leaves the door open for future stolen moments. Scarlett declares she’ll hate him forever, but actions speak louder than words.

Also attending the barbecue is black sheep Charlestonian Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who’s immediately drawn to Scarlett. He witnessed the row between her and Ashley, and doesn’t understand what such a sassy, feisty woman sees in a guy like that.

The barbecue goes haywire when news of the declaration of war breaks, and all the young men rush off to enlist. Hoping to make Ashley jealous, Scarlett impulsively decides to marry Melanie’s brother Charles. Shortly before this, Charles and Rhett got into a heated argument when Rhett defied popular opinion to declare the North is better-equipped for victory.

Charles was gunning for a duel, but Rhett left the room to diffuse the situation. Though Charles thought Rhett a coward, Ashley told him Rhett is a much better shot and would’ve killed him.

Several months later, Scarlett becomes a widow when Charles dies of the measles (one of those lovely diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal). Her mother suggests she move to Atlanta to break her melancholy (which of course isn’t caused by Charles’s death). Scarlett will live with Melanie and Melanie’s spinster aunt Pittypat.

Scarlett eagerly accepts this offer, hoping it’ll provide a chance to see Ashley again.

Scarlett attracts scandal when she attends a fundraiser in 1862 and dares to dance instead of demurely standing off to the side in her widow’s weeds. One of the few people at the charity event who doesn’t disapprove of her behaviour is Rhett, now making a fortune as an arms smuggler.

When Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Scarlett follows suit. Melanie, always seeing the best in people and unaware of untoward motivations, applauds this noble sacrifice. A dance auction is then held, and Rhett chooses Scarlett as his partner when he wins.

As they dance, Rhett tells Scarlett he wants her to someday say she loves him, and she says that’ll never happen.

By 1863, things aren’t going so well on the Atlanta homefront, and Scarlett and Melanie are forced into nursing work. Scarlett has to shoulder the burden of most of it, since Melanie, now pregnant after a furlough visit from Ashley, isn’t in the best of health.

Aunt Pittypat soon leaves to avoid the constant sound of artillery, compelling Scarlett into the role of mistress of the house. Her only help, slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), isn’t much help at all, esp. when Melanie goes into labour.

As Atlanta burns, the ladies escape back to Tara, with help from Rhett, the only person Scarlett knows who can get them to safety. Once they’re outside city limits, Rhett announces his plans to enlist and leaves them to journey the rest of the way alone.

Rhett professes his love before he leaves, which greatly angers Scarlett.

Their harrowing journey ends at a plundered, devastated Tara and a burnt Twelve Oaks. Even worse, Scarlett’s dad has gone half-mad since the recent death of his wife, and only two slaves are left, Mammy and Pork. All the other servants and slaves ran away or joined the Union Army.

Part I ends as Scarlett stands in the desolated fields, famously swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

To be continued.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

An epic of war, love, and crime

The Roaring Twenties, released 23 October 1939, is based on Mark Hellinger’s autobiographical short story “The World Moves On.” It ties with White Heat as my favourite Cagney film. Every single second is made of awesomeness.

During WWI, Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), George Hally (Bogart), and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) meet in a foxhole, become friends, and dream about what they’ll do with their lives if the war ever ends.

In 1919, the three of them finally come home. Lloyd starts a law practice, George becomes a bootlegger, and Eddie embarks on a long, painful search for work after finding his old garage mechanic job taken.

Eddie’s roommate Danny Green (Frank McHugh) suggests he become a cabbie, an offer Eddie is compelled into taking out of desperation. Before he starts working, however, Danny drives Eddie to meet his pretty penpal Jean Sherman in Mineola, Long Island. They go in Danny’s own cab.

Eddie is shocked to discover Jean (Priscilla Lane) is just a high school girl, and that the photo she gave him was herself in costume for a school play. He smartly takes his leave, much to Jean’s disappointment.

That June, the 19th Amendment is ratified, leading to the ban of alcohol. Eddie soon finds himself in trouble for unknowingly delivering liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George) in his cab. He hasn’t $100 to pay the fine, so he chooses to serve sixty days in jail.

After Eddie’s release from jail, Panama invites him to go into business with her. Bootlegging soon earns Eddie a very comfortable living. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, despite moral qualms.

Eddie encounters Jean performing at a speakeasy in 1922, and the tables are turned when Jean rebuffs him this time. Eventually she agrees to travel home to Mineola on the late night train with Eddie.

Eddie walks her to her house and discovers she lives there alone since the death of her mother. To save Jean from homelessness and destitution, and to help her to realise her dream of becoming a musical comedy star, Eddie finagles her into a singing job at Panama’s speakeasy, for $100 a week.

Panama is stunned when Eddie shows her an engagement ring he bought for Jean. She points out Eddie’s more suited to dames like herself than innocent girls next door like Jean, and doesn’t understand what Eddie sees in her.

Jean is just as floored when Eddie presents her with the ring. She likes him, but not the racket he’s involved in. Eddie responds by asking her to hold onto the ring till he saves enough dough to quit bootlegging.

Eddie crosses paths with his old pal George again while hijacking rival bootlegger Nick Brown’s liquor ship. George agrees to leave Nick and come to work for Eddie.

In 1924, Eddie and George conduct a heist of one of Nick’s warehouses. On their way out, George recognises a watchman as their former sergeant who made their lives miserable. Without taking much time to reflect, George kills him.

Lloyd’s conscience can bear no more of this dirty business when he discovers what happened. George says he’ll kill Lloyd too if he squeals on them.

Then everyone begins double-crossing one another, and the body count climbs. In the midst of all this, Lloyd also steals Jean from Eddie.

Eddie’s misfortunes increase when the Stock Market crashes, and he begins drinking for the first time.

Will Eddie be able to break free of crime and alcoholism in time to redeem himself?

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

A voyage into the Sun

Released 29 October 1904, Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible (Voyage Through the Impossible) is a sequel of sorts to director Georges Méliès’s 1902 classic Le Voyage dans la Lune. This time, the intrepid explorers and their mad scientist leader travel to the Sun. Like the former, it satirizes scientific exploration.

As some might surmise from the title, it’s partly based on Jules Verne’s 1882 fantasy play Journey Through the Impossible. Méliès loosely interpreted the concept, however, seeing as the explorers in Verne’s story travel to the centre of the Earth, a distant planet, and the bottom of the sea, not the Sun.

At 374 meters, this was Méliès’s longest film to date. Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible was one of the most popular films in the early years of the twentieth century.

Like many other Méliès films, this too was hand-coloured. Unlike other Méliès films, however, this one appears to have no spoken narration which goes along with it. The summary is derived from his own description.

The Institute of Incoherent Geography wants to embark upon a world tour like no other, one which shall “surpass in conception and invention all previous expeditions undertaken by the learned world.” Prof. Daredevil speaks first, but his plan is soundly rejected as out of date.

Next to speak is mad engineer Mabouloff (Méliès) (called Crazyloff in English-language materials, seeing as maboul means “crackpot” and “crazy” in French). He proposes an impossible voyage taking advantage of “all the known means of locomotion—railroads, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarine boats…”

His proposal is met with most enthusiastic approval, and the society immediately begins preparing for this crazy voyage.

The voyagers and their required equipment take a train to the Swiss Alps, where the adventure truly begins. The first proper leg of the journey transpires in Auto-Mabouloff (which kind of resembles a golf cart), which takes them through the Alps.

Sadly, the car crashes while trying to cross the summit of the Rigi. Mountaineers come to their rescue and rush them to hospital.

Upon recovering, our intrepid travellers take a train which attempts to climb a second Alpine summit, the Jungfrau. This time, they’re successful, thanks to dirigible balloons tied to the train. Their journey takes them all the way into space and eventually the Sun, where they crash-land.

The intense heat is too much to bear, and the travellers climb into an icebox they conveniently brought. All, that is, except Mabouloff, who’s horrified to presently open the icebox door and find his friends frozen in a huge ice block. Luckily, the fire he starts with help from some straw soon revives them.

Everyone relocates to their submarine, which lifts off from a solar cliff and travels back through space, finally landing in the ocean depths. After several minutes underseas, a boiler causes an explosion, and the travellers are spewed into the air.

They land at a seaport, along with the submarine wreckage, and triumphantly return to the Institute of Incoherent Geography. They’re welcomed back with a grand reception.

Méliès also filmed an optional epilogue, sold separately, which starts in Mabouloff’s study. There he’s criticised by the Institute for losing so much precious transportation equipment during this impossible voyage.

Mabouloff lays out a plan for recovering the equipment—a magnet to collect the lost car in Switzerland, the train in the Sun, and the submarine underwater. This magnet works just as proposed, and a celebratory banquet is held to laud Mabouloff.

The epilogue was believed to be lost till the 1970s, when Méliès scholar John Frazer found it in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s archives, along with other negatives from Star Film’s New York office. Despite this, a 2008 Méliès filmography lists it as lost.