Jezebel: Bette Davis’ Oscar Winning Role of 1938

by Paul Batters

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“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”. Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)

By the late 1930s, the major studios had worked to perfect their film making craft and the signature elements of production had firmed themselves. It was also a period where cinema had recovered economically from the financial strain of the Great Depression, found form and approach in terms of sound and would produce some of the best work of the pre-WW2 period. For one of the biggest stars on the Warner Bros. lot, 1938 would be an important year, which would see the arc of her stardom move into the realm of screen legend.

Bette Davis is today remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, with a number of critics suggesting she tops the list. But whilst she was a star in 1938, Davis had been battling with Jack Warner for better roles, scripts with substance and respect for her talents as an actress. Her infamous and well-publicised court case with Warner Bros. saw her forced to return to the studio but despite this seemingly chastened position, the studio began to realise that Davis indeed was deserving of better treatment. As Davis would later state, she was surprised that Warner “bent over backwards to be nice” to her, with increased salary as well as the script for Marked Woman (1937) which would do well at the box office. (Full review here) Things were changing for Bette. Her battles with J. L would continue for some time but 1938 would finally see a shift in the roles and scripts being offered.

Her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel (1938) would be the film, which truly put that shift into gear. As the biblical connotations of the film’s title suggests, the title role was one encompassing a dangerous and sinful woman and Davis would shape the character, especially through the direction of William Wyler, beyond the initial limitations of the script.

The story had failed in its’ initial form on the stage in 1932, ironically starring Miriam Hopkins whose rivalry with Davis was legendary and only second to the infamous Crawford-Davis feud. According to Ed Sikov, Wyler’s interest in filming the stage play had existed as far back as 1933 when he saw it as a vehicle for his then wife, Margaret Sullavan. When Warner Bros. purchased the rights from Miriam Hopkins in January 1937, the studio’s head of story department, Walter McEwen, was determined to see Davis in the role of the “little bitch of an aristocratic Southern girl”. The conventional wisdom regarding Davis’ turn in Jezebel and one implied by her biographer James Spada is that it was a ‘consolation’ for not winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With The Wind (1939), which is a story that this review will not go into here. However, Ed Sikov suggests that such a suggestion is debatable and unfortunately comparisons of Davis’ performance to perhaps the most famous Southern belle ever put to screen will always be made.

The other key fundamental in shaping Jezebel was its’ director, William Wyler. Initially, Edmund Goulding was appointed director but his views for direction didn’t gel with production head Hal Wallis and Wyler was approached to direct. Bette received Wyler’s appointment with mixed feelings. When Bette was at Universal in 1931, she had been terribly humiliated at a screen test with Wyler (see link). Sikov relates the story that before shooting Bette and Wyler met and she brought up the story, which Wyler had largely forgotten. Apologising profusely, Bette recalled that she believed his apology to be sincere. By the end of filming, the two would be caught up in a passionate love affair, which Bette would remember as one that was highly-sexually charged and remember as one of the great loves of her life. But Wyler would do far more for Bette and her performance in Jezebel, which would be publically acknowledged when she received the Oscar for Best Actress. Wyler would challenge and extend her work beyond what she had previously experienced and as Spada points out, she revelled in working with a “director who was strong enough to match her in every way”.

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Jezebel is a pre-Civil War tale set in New Orleans, with Wyler establishing context through a tracking shot down one of the town’s main boulevards, taking in the grandeur and business of the street. As Ed Sikov conveys, the continuity of the shot is beautifully set and the subtleties along with the grandeur create an imposing start to the film. The time is set approximately ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War and there are moments in the film where the tensions between North and South will come to the fore. Davis plays Julie Marston, a headstrong Southern belle who tries to emotionally manipulate those around her, including her fiancé Pres Dillard. (Henry Fonda). Pres is a banker who is also a strong and upright character but usually defers to Julie because of his love for her.

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Davis’ entrance on screen as Julie Marsden is not as grand as the opening sequence but the nature of her character is clear from the get-go. Riding up to the front entrance of her home plantation, complete with feathered hat and riding crop, Julie hands her horse to a slave boy who is scared of the horse. Despite Julie’s advise not to be scared, the boy is afraid that the horse bites, to which Julie responds, “bite him back”. With incredible arrogance and defiance, she then saunters into her own party for which she is terribly late, inappropriately dressed and in complete disregard for the etiquette and expectations of the occasion. It’s a brilliant moment of film, perfectly establishing character and a scene that was completed in 48 takes. It was also the moment when Davis realised Wyler’s directorial genius and his ability to create with detail to every shot.

Pres is tied up in serious business at the bank and shows his foresight regarding the North and how the South needs to regard North-South relations. He is supposed to join Julie for a dress fitting in anticipation of the Olympus debutante ball, where the two will formally announce their engagement. As Julie wait for him in her carriage, her arrogance and lack of respect for her fiancé is more than evident when she fully expects him to obey her summons and states that she “has been training him for years”. However, Pres makes it clear that he is busy only then to be interrupted by Julie in the middle of the meeting. Not caring that Pres is in “the fight of my life”, she plans a spiteful lesson and much to the shock of her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) chooses a bright, red dress for the ball. She adds that she “has never been more serious in my life”.

Pres later arrives at her home, only to be advised by Julie’s guardian, General Theopholus Bogardus (Henry O’Neill) that she “needs a firm hand” and indeed Pres storms upstairs, his patience pushed to the limit. Julie’s coquettish and flirting ways melts his anger and she also shows the dress she will be wearing. He sees that she is “nursing a spite” and expects her to do the right thing and wear appropriate attire. But on the night of the ball, she still wears the dress as well enticing a former beau Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to inflame Pres’ jealousy.

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However, Pres will not be deterred by her spite nor her desire to cause a sensation and attends the ball with her.

The fifteen-minute Olympus ball scene is the highlight of the film and Wyler expertly exploits the reverse crane shot to full effect. The ornate balcony is filled with people watching the dancers underneath a grand chandelier, all reflecting the requirements and expectations of the elite of New Orleans society. It is into this scenario that Pres enters with Julie on his arm, resplendent in bare shoulders and red dress, sending a wave of shock at such a scandal. Further to the point, Julie is supercilious and glides into the ballroom with incredible arrogance and expectant triumph. Pres remains staunch and has already decided that Julie needs to be taught a lesson.

As they are ostracized by the people they know and stared at by others, Julie begins to realize that she has miscalculated and overreached herself as the extent of her brazen act becomes apparent. Now desperate to escape her awful predicament, she asks Pres to take her home. Yet Pres defiantly responds, “we haven’t danced yet” and takes her onto the dance floor. As the two swirl to the waltz being played, Wyler moves the camera above them showing the other dancers leave the floor and highlighting the couple’s naked isolation and disgrace. The high angle now makes Julie look small and her defeat looks all the more terrible. Begging with resignation, Julie whimpers again for Pres to take her home. Once the waltz ends, Julie rushes from the ball with Pres grim-faced and defiant as he takes her home. She has become a spectacle rather than a sensation.

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Yet despite this lesson, Julie has not fathomed that she had used up Pres’ patience and pushed him beyond his limits. After taking Julie to her door, Pres says goodbye, making it clear that their engagement is over. Slapping his face and calmly saying goodbye, Julie watches him leave and her arrogance restores itself. Aunt Belle pleads with her to call him back but she refuses, stating:

“No, he’ll come back. Wait and see. And tonight, I think. If he does, say I’ve retired. And then I’m sleepin’ late in the morning. Not to come around ’till afternoon tomorrow…”

The Olympus debutante ball scene took five days to shoot, much to the annoyance of Hal Wallis. Bette also found the shooting difficult but as James Spada points out was delighted at the attention to detail that Wyler was giving the scene, having learned quickly to appreciate his direction. Fonda reportedly was not overtly pleased yet other sources suggest he didn’t complain too much. However, nobody could doubt the power of the scene and its’ importance to the driving of the story.

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A year later and Pres has long since headed North to continue with his financial business whilst Julie has remained reclusive. Yet they discover that Pres is returning much to Julie’s excitement and, it seems, she has learned her lesson. She plans to humble herself before him and beg forgiveness, believing that they will be married. Yet this reaction is still indicative of her arrogance and self-centredness and indeed is still a signal of her emotional manipulation of others. When she finally meets Pres and discovers he is married to a Northerner named Amy (Margaret Lindsay), she reverts to her old ways and her spite and malice rises to the surface and she plans to use all means at her disposal to get her way.

Julie’s machinations, however, are not oblivious to all. At a formal dinner, she flaunts herself at Buck to which Pres’ brother makes comment that she’s acting “like a Gallatan Street girl” (i.e a prostitute), tries to encourage an argument between Pres and Buck and later makes a sexual advance towards Pres himself, which he rejects. Julie makes all manner of insinuations and engineers a duel, which will end tragically and not meet the desired outcome. Most telling, the key characters involved in the duel make clear that they know what Julie had been attempting and this key moment in the film gives lead to the film’s title, which is delivered by the kindly, refined and most gentile Aunt Belle:

“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”.

Greater tragedy is to come when New Orleans is stricken by ‘yellow jack’ (yellow fever). The montage, with elements of German Expressionism- the jagged writing exclaiming ‘yellow jack!’, the heightened orchestral music – emphasis the catastrophe and the panic that has hit as martial law has been declared. But it will foreshadow the personal tragedy that Julie will face and provide the climax of the film. This reviewer will not reveal any spoilers here but the audience is left to decide whether Julie’s final act is one of redemption or one of selfishness.

Jezebel is a solid film with some outstanding moments rather than a powerful A-film. What lifts the hackneyed storyline out of cliché is Wyler’s direction, which drew from Davis a strong performance. At a professional and personal level, Jezebel would be a difficult yet exhilarating time for Bette Davis. During filming, she was so physically and mentally drained that she became seriously ill. Additionally, her sense of self and confidence was challenged despite the excitement of discovering the extent to which a great director could take her work. The end of filming saw the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship and left a complex and bitter taste for a woman who had sought her father’s approval. Yet winning a second Oscar for Best Actress certainly placed in the echelon of great Hollywood stars. She attributed the success of her performance to Wyler during her acceptance speech and it was clear that he had taught her a great deal about her abilities and talents.

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Davis is the shining light in Jezebel. Fonda is solid as Pres but not particularly inspiring whist George Brent plays a role, which for most of the film feels one-dimensional. Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle gives a tempered performance in keeping with the cultured, gentile and kindly woman who is always there for her niece. She would also be acknowledged for her work, receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

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Jezebel was a stand-out film for Bette Davis. Not only did she deliver a measured performance but it saw the start of a run of successful films both commercially and critically that have endured. If Bette Davis is remembered today as one of the greatest actresses of all time, this is the film, which truly set her on the path of being remembered.

This review of Jezebel (1938) is an entry in the The Made In 1938 Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days At Hollywood’ and Robin at Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the links to read some other fantastic entries on great films from 1938! A special thank you to both hosts for the opportunity!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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Alan Hale: The Consummate Character Actor

by Paul Batters

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The nature of an audience is to focus on their favourite stars on the screen. Each studio was fully aware of this during the Golden Years Of Hollywood and they were careful to assure their star performers would be at the centre of that focus. Stars were paired together because they had a special chemistry on the silver screen (even if it didn’t exist off screen!) Directors had their favourites as well and the entire production was geared towards a final product, which aimed to be a hit for audiences.

There is a key aspect of the film making process that is often forgotten or not given a great deal of attention. That is the work of the supporting cast and in particular the character actor. They have faces we have seen many times but sometimes cannot put a name to – and in some cases are often type-cast, as the sidekick in the Western, the ‘heavy’ in the crime, film noir or gangster film or the cruel mother-in-law. But the quality of their performances offer a greater depth to the story being depicted and allow the stars to shine even more so. Many of these actors and actresses have had long and fruitful careers because of the worth they bring to the screen and their ability to give a film balance.

In the world of classic film, perhaps one of the most prolific performers and certainly a loved actor with a very recognisable face is the man born as Rufus Edward Mackahan. He would become better known as Alan Hale Snr.

What made Hale such a remarkable and noticeable face was his uncanny ability to provide balance to any performance. It is debatable whether he worked to upstage, over-shadow or play off the screen any of the stars that he worked with, despite coming damn near close on many occasions. If he did, it doesn’t seem to be out of malice. Indeed, the good-natured Hale was a welcome supporting actor on many films, pushing the main stars to work harder and provide performances, which offered something more. He tempered his performance and understood what his job was; yet it is also important to note that Hale was neither overwhelmed nor intimidated by the stars he was working with. And Hale worked with an incredible array of legendary actors and actresses including Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Lon Chaney, Wallace Beery, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Hale would even direct some films for Cecil B DeMille during the 1920s, indicating the wide-ranging talent of the man.

Starting his screen career in the early days of silent cinema, his physical presence saw him often cast as the ‘heavy’ or villain. His opera trained voice would ironically be unheard. Yet his voice with his rich depth and warmth would be as recognizable as his face. Whilst not called upon to sing, Hale’s early vocal training would give him a solid understanding of how to use his voice, which would have been quite the asset during the early days of the talkie. Combined with his solid, tall frame and highly expressive face, Hale had a special and lasting presence on the screen which makes it more than understandable why he was such a sought after character and supporting actor.

 

Whilst he worked at a number of the major studios, Hale is perhaps best remembered for his work at Warner Bros; particularly his work with Errol Flynn. Despite a number of descriptions identifying Hale as a ‘sidekick’ to Flynn, it is erroneous to see Alan Hale in such a light. Flynn and Hale were close and the chemistry shared by the two on screen certainly lifted the scenes they shared into memorable occasions. Some reports suggest that Flynn was a huge fan of Hale because he wasn’t intimidated and enjoyed the fact that Hale was such a success at stealing scenes from the main star. The two would be good friends off the screen as well and Overall, the two would work together in 13 films, including historical dramas such as The Prince And The Pauper (1937), westerns such as Dodge City (1939) biopics such as Gentleman Jim (1942) and swashbuckler such as The Sea Hawk (1940).

 

Yet his most famous role is as Little John opposite Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938). Hale’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure bounces off the screen and helps to shape one of the most enjoyable and exciting films that Errol Flynn ever made. Interestingly enough, it is a role he would play three times – once during the silent era alongside Fairbanks Snr and in his final film role in Rogues Of Sherwood Forest (1950).

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Hale had a knack in making even a cameo role memorable and there are many occasions where he was able to seize the moment, injecting some humour with perfect timing and weighting. In It Happened One Night (1934), Hale makes an appearance as Danker, a conman who tries to steal Gable’s and Colbert’s luggage while offering them a lift. He’s on the screen only for a few moments but his singing proves hilarious, and his facial expressions likewise.

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Likewise, Hale’s turn as Ed Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940) is warm, natural and unpretentious to a fault as the owner of a trucking company and is married to Lana (Ida Lupino), who is as cold and mean as he is sympathetic and friendly. His kindness to Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and the sensitive way he dismisses Joe’s promise to repay him, again shows how effective Hale could be with a simple gesture or facial response. The audience’s sympathies lie directly with Ed and this heightens what will follow, nicely played by Lupino as the cruel counterpart to Hale’s ex-trucker.

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Some reviewers have often described Alan Hale as being simply comedy relief. One of the strongest pieces of evidence to refute this is his role in Stella Dallas (1937) as ‘Uncle’ Ed Munn, where he displays a complexity of vulgarity and pathos in his portrayal. Likewise, in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). Hale plays Cook, one of the soldiers facing terrible adversity in the desert during World War One, a role as far from comedy as one can imagine, which he carries with depth and sensitivity.

 

Hollywood has been blessed with a pantheon of incredible character and supporting actors. Without their presence and professionalism, the films produced would be lesser films. Alan Hale provided something special, understanding his craft and using it to full effect. As a result, the films Hale appeared in are far richer, enjoyable and memorable because of what he brought to the silver screen.

A special thanks to Aurora from Citizen Screen, Kellee from Outspoken& Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club, who joined together to host the seventh What A Character! blogathon. Make sure you visit to read other great entries.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952): A Review Of One Of Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals

By Paul Batters

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‘ I’m singin’ in the rain, Just singin’ in the rain
What a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again.
I’m laughing at clouds, So dark up above
The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love’. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly)

The musical has never been a particular favourite of mine, despite a deep love of music and an appreciation of the place of the musical in cinema history. There are some musicals that I have warmed to and a few that hold a place in my heart. Yet I have never felt the same way for the genre that other classic film fans and critics do.

Recently on a long flight from Paris back home to Australia (let that 24 hour flight sink in for a moment), I found the entertainment package lacking in quality. There were only three ‘classic films’ on offer, and all three were musicals. The choice was actually straightforward, particularly after reading and hearing so much about the choice I made. So I got as comfortable as I could and found myself lost in the Technicolor dream-world of MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain.

What I discovered was a complete understanding of why William Thomas in Empire Magazine declared the film ‘an unadulterated joy’ which ‘overflows with the pleasures of movie creation’. Singin’ In The Rain may be a little silly and even ‘cheesy’ at times but it is an undeniable classic in terms of cinema craft, with incredible choreography, outstanding performances and production quality, which exemplifies why the era in which it was made, was called the Golden Years Of Hollywood.

Singin’ In The Rain draws on the best parts of the tradition of the musical, with amazing song and dance performances in place of dialogue, particularly during moments in the story of heightened emotion. The songs are not only memorable but have become part of popular culture and also draw on music from films made after the time in which the film is set. Audiences of the time surely would have recognised this but the point of the film is not simply historical authenticity; indeed, Singin’ In The Rain’ is as much homage to the musical, as well as the film industry. Interestingly enough, the film was not a massive hit upon its’ release although it did good business at the box office. Critics such as Bosley Crowther, whilst offering positive comments on the film, spoke of its’ ability to put the audience in a ‘buttercup mood’ and I can’t help but wonder if there is a slight sting in his assessment. However, through re-releases, television, home video and DVD, the film has grown in status and rightfully deserves its’ place in the echelon of great films.

Yet as much as it revels in the enjoyment of expression through song and dance and a celebration of the Hollywood musical, Singin’ In The Rain also pokes fun at itself and the Hollywood industry. It is an enjoyable piece of satire with beautifully paced comedy, which highlights one of the most traumatic changes in the industry – the switch from silent to sound. However, it is also solid storytelling through song and dance, and the full acknowledgement that cinema is ultimately a manipulation of the senses and an illusion of reality.

Set in 1927, the film opens with the premier of The Royal Rascal, the latest film of on-screen’s (and not-so-much off-screen) lovers Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Their studio Monumental (a lovely play on the titles of the majors) has publicized the couple as romantically linked and the film consistently satirizes this Hollywood practice, with incredible irony. As we soon discover, Don cannot stand Lina, whose vanity deludes her to the truth of their relationship. Don’s former song and dance partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) is also present at the premier and stands by as Don recounts the story of his rise to stardom, which is brilliantly accompanied by a hilarious montage of the real events. After the premier, Don tries to dodge the fans and gets a lift from Ann Sheldon (Debbie Reynolds) a young ‘stage’ actress who is not impressed by Don’s stardom. Yet during their interaction, there is a little drop of truth from Don Lockwood:

‘Well, we movie stars get the glory. I guess we have to take the little heartaches that go with it. People think we lead lives of glamour and romance, but we’re really lonely – terribly lonely’.

The first turning point in the film is interesting from a historical perspective, when Monumental Studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) demonstrates a ‘talkie’. The responses reflect the attitudes of 1927 – mixed and mostly negative. But the scene also reveals that Kathy is not the stage actress she claimed to be, when she pops out of a cake, to be teased and mocked by Don, who sarcastically exclaims:‘Well, if it isn’t Ethel Barrymore!’ What follows is a cute number which belies Kathy’s earlier claims. Don’s taunting will push Kathy to limit. Aiming a cream pie at him (and the films drawing on the slapstick of the early comedies), Kathy hits Lina in the face instead, which further endears Kathy to Don. Later, the audience discovers that Kathy has always been a fan of Don.

Cinema history again shows its’ hand when the release and success of The Jazz Singer prompts studios to make sounds films. Despite initially knocking the coming of sound, R.F sees the future and states that the next Lockwood/Lamont vehicle, The Dueling Cavalier, will be a talkie. Yet Lina’s talking voice is terrible to say the least and does not transfer onto the screen well. (In real life, Hagen has a great speaking voice, which as Robert Ebert pointed out, may have accounted for her Best Supporting Actress nomination).

The inspiration for making the film a musical comes from Don, Cosmo and Kathy with Cosmo suggesting that Lina’s voice be dubbed over by Kathy. Lina is furious and as we will discover is far smarter and more cunning than everyone gives her credit for; she uses her contract to blackmail the studio. But it will backfire on her, as Lina’s ego is too great and Don reveals who the true star is – Kathy.

As in every musical that intends to warm the heart, all’s well that end’s well and Don and Kathy kiss in front of the audience with a dissolve into a full poster of the new twosome in their first film together entitled Singin’ In The Rain.

The comedy and dramatic irony in the film is to be commended. There are plenty of in-jokes and short digs at elements of the Hollywood industry that permeate the film and assist in building and driving the plot – the forced pairing of Lockwood and Lamont as a romantic couple, the early dismissal of sound pictures, the voice coaches and stars struggling to develop good diction, the clumsy, early attempts at recording sound and Lamont’s struggles with the microphone. (There have been suggestions that this may mirror the problems Clara Bow faced, though she seems to have sounded just fine and the reported first sound film of John Gilbert. Yet Gilbert’s ‘failure’ may not be the case of having a bad voice but perhaps a bad relationship with L. B Mayer.) The ‘Moses Supposes’ scene where Don and Cosmo toy with the voice coach is particularly humorous:

However, the real winning elements are the fantastic musical numbers, which are thoroughly entertaining but also drive the story. O’Connor’s intensely physical ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number is not only an homage to slapstick but was reportedly such an effort to film that O’Connor needed bed rest afterwards. Even worse for all concerned but moreso for O’Connor, he had to drag himself out of his sick bed to film the grueling scene again after being told that the original footage had been accidentally destroyed. Additionally, the sunny and bright ‘Good Morning’ routine took nearly 16 hours to get perfect and shoot, leaving newcomer Debbie Reynolds with bleeding feet and a bleeding heart from the cruel jibes and bullying delivered her way from Kelly. But the numbers seem effortless and Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds share an incredible chemistry, as well as palpable professionalism and talent in the execution of each number.

The film within a film loses a little in story being driven but nothing in terms of brilliant production and perfectly choreographed numbers. The ‘Gotta Dance!’ number is an inspiration for anyone who loves song and dance. But my personal favourite moment in this sequence is the gangster spoof which appropriates many of the motifs of the late 20s.early 30s gangster films. Check the tough looking gangster, flanked by two other bad guys, as he flips a coin a la George Raft. For me, watching Cyd Charisse as the gangster’s moll engage in a seductive and sensuous dance with Kelly is one of the highlights of the film in terms of strong passion and emotion being displayed and reflected in tempered and purposeful movement. But Charisse in her stunning green dress, with Louise Brooks hair, long legs and cigarette holder steals the show. It is also a wonderful moment of emotion and story being told through movement. Kelly as Lockwood tells his story like a ballet dancer and his performance is a crowning glory in the man’s career.

The legendary Arthur Freed, from whose production unit the film was born, made many successful musicals for MGM and Freed would draw from the best talent to create these master-pieces, not in the least the film’s key star and choreographer Gene Kelly. The work ethic and often excessive, gruelling and bullying demands of the great song-and-dance man are infamous yet he was a man who demanded as much from himself. Perhaps the most celebrated and famous scene is the solo effort of Gene Kelly singing the title song, saturated to the bone and his character soaring with the sheer elation of being in love. At no point is anything else conveyed, yet Kelly was seriously ill with a terrible fever. When Reynolds says to him, ‘Take care of that throat’, she’s not kidding!

Debbie Reynolds would recount that filming Singin’ In The Rain was one of the most difficult and toughest times in her life. For the then 19 year old, it was her breakthrough role and as Ebert points out Reynolds had to keep up with two of the most experienced veterans in the business. Kelly would also later state that he did treat her poorly and was amazed by her personal toughness and resilience. Reynolds would later reveal that the studio attempted to give her ‘vitamins’ to pep her up and keep her going. Fortunately for Reynolds, her personal doctor intervened and she avoided, as she would attest, what Judy Garland went through. Donald O’Connor is a joy as Lockwood’s ex-partner and should also be celebrated as one of the great song and dance men. His exuberance and sheer zaniness is a counter-point to Kelly’s sublime fluidity. Despite the abuses, tough filming schedule and difficulties, none of these traumas leak into the performances on the screen and all the audience sees are incredible and charismatic performances. Tell me you don’t have a smile at the end of the film!

Needless to say, Singin’ In The Rain was a wonderful and joyous surprise, which stole away 102 minutes of an awful plane flight and had me captivated at every moment. It has romance, it has comedy and it has iconic songs and dance routines. What was also clear for me was that Singin’ In The Rain is a sheer delight, which delivers pure entertainment and I’m looking forward to revisiting this wonderful film again.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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The Philadelphia Story (1940): One Of The Greatest Comedies Ever Made

by Paul Batters

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“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” Mike Connor

One of the great enjoyments of being a classic film fan is discovering films that you have either never seen or rediscovering films that had been previously dismissed or ignored (for one reason or another). Regardless of the reason, it means experiencing something new when finally viewed and something new is learned about the classic film era. For myself, it was a combination of both reasons when I finally watched The Philadelphia Story (1940). I was certainly not disappointed!

Released through MGM and directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) is a classic screwball comedy. By the end of the 1930s, the market had seen a near surplus of screwball comedies of which are a number are easily forgotten. Yet The Philadelphia Story (1940) doesn’t fall to formula whilst still maintaining the deep, healthy irreverence in tone and style, which was a key convention of the genre. Additionally, it uses another oft-used plot device of the love triangle/re-married couple, which had in some form or another been a popular theme in films, particularly during the Production Code Era.

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The aim of this review is not to outline the plot but to look at the film’s strengths and offer some points of admiration from this review that may prompt the reader to engage with the aforementioned joy of discovering or re-discovering classic films!

In brief, the story revolves around Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) a wealthy previously divorced socialite who is about to re-marry Gordon Kittredge (John Howard), a rich individual who has made his fortune rather than inherited it. It is roughly two years since she divorced her first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), which ended acrimoniously and their break-up is brilliantly depicted in the opening scene. It’s a testament to Cukor as director and the writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, who sum up the end of a marriage using slapstick humour, the loud silence of a couple not talking to each other and one of the best physical falls ever shown on film.

With the context established, the audience finds that Tracy and Gordon will marry the next day and as the activities of the rich make great fodder for the reporters, Spy Magazine sends two reports to cover the story – Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). However, to get access to the Lord household, they need her former husband Dexter to assist.

To add a complication to matters, Dexter blackmails Tracy into allowing the reporters and him to stay as guests, by telling her that he will reveal the extra-marital affair her father had with a dancer. With her hands tied, Tracy has no choice but to let the stay for the wedding.

What follows is classic comedy, as Tracy will find herself torn between her former husband Dexter, her fiancé George and the reporter Mike. The lead-up to the wedding will see all characters caught up in all manner of situations with Tracy in particular asking questions of herself. The rest is for the reader to discover by watching the film!

So what makes The Philadelphia Story a bona fide classic?

The story initially sounds formulaic but it reaches far beyond what may be expected from such a plot. There’s a combination of factors, which allow for this to occur and the first port of call when discussing needs to be the script. Phillip Barry’s play (written for Hepburn) is perfectly transformed to the screen by Ogden Stewart, with pitch perfect pacing and dialogue that snaps with sharpness and sophistication. The script doesn’t just flow; it weaves. Ogden Stewart channels and interlocks moments of slapstick with pandemonium, romance and satire – and I have no doubt that the chaotic splendor of Paramount era Marx Bros has been thrown in for good measure. Note the brilliant rendition of Lydia The Tattooed Lady by Virginia Weidler as Dinah, Tracy’s younger teenaged sister. The dialogue fits the characters to a tee and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the astute point that ‘the fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances’. The ‘deceptive strength’ is ever-present in the moments we least expect, such as Dexter’s honest and devastating appraisal of Tracy delivered with a serrated sharpness that eviscerates Tracy with its’ truth. There’s nothing stilted or stiff in the dialogue and it never falls flat. Wendy Ide in The Times states that The Philadelphia Story possesses a ‘blue-chip screenplay…with fizz and spark’. It’s no mistake that Donald Ogden Stewart would win the Academy Award For Best Screenplay.

But the script doesn’t come alive without the sterling performances of the key players and the brilliance of the outstanding supporting cast. It’s well known and part of film lore that Hepburn needed the film to be a success after being declared ‘box-office poison’ and Holiday (1938) failing at the box office. Howard Hughes had helped with acquiring the rights to the play but Hepburn knew it would take exceptional talent to deliver the characters. Gable and Tracy were her desired actors but they were apparently tied up with other commitments. However, Cary Grant biographer Marc Eliot has stated that neither Gable nor Tracy wanted to work with her because of her status as box-office poison and Gable didn’t like the script at any rate. (Tracy had not met Hepburn at that point). Cary Grant’s previous work with Hepburn had chemistry and it culminated in their perfect partnership in The Philadelphia Story.

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Grant brings to the role of Dexter his exceptional comedic timing, charm and wit, as well as an exceptional and uncanny ability to physically react to his opposite number with both and subtle and overt expression. Hepburn shows incredible range and conveys the haughtiness, strong will and arrogance of the character whilst shaping the character arc with depth and perfectly balancing this against Tracy’s frailty and vulnerability. She gives all of herself to the role and this was recognized by John Mosher in his review at the time in The New Yorker, pointing out the film was a triumph for Hepburn. The third primary character (and love interest), Mike Connor, is a win for Jimmy Stewart, who had just come off his success in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Stewart is strong as the cynical reporter who regards the Lord household with contempt whilst falling for the statuesque Tracy. Stewart would not only win great reviews from critics such as Bosley Crowther but would also win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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At the helm of the film’s direction, as already mentioned was one of MGM’s finest directors George Cukor, who had worked with Hepburn in four films. Cukor crafts a film, which leaves no dead air nor fills up time for the sake of it. There’s depth and meaning in moment and Cukor draws outstanding performances from the cast, and intertwining the complex relationships across a thematic climate of class war, truth to self and love. Demetrious Matheou describes the film as ‘an effervescent social satire that pokes fun at all sides in the class war. It’s wickedly witty, gloriously romantic, whip-smart and complex, even verging on the unsavory at times – all in all, something of a complete entertainment’. If so, it’s in great part due to the sensitivities of Cukor and his vision in shaping the film into the classic comedy that it would become.

The supporting cast is also a joy to behold on the silver screen, offering layers to the stars’ performances but more importantly helping to shape and create the world in which the film exists as well as buffering the relationships between the prime characters. As wonderful as they all are, for my money the two standouts are Mary Nash as Tracy’s mother Margaret and Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s sister Dinah. Their interactions on screen are hilarious and the dialogue shared is sidesplitting and rounded out with a naturalness borne of the talent of the actresses delivering their lines. The young Weidler never seems to be out of depth nor dazzled working closely with the primary stars of the film, and proves absolutely delightful on the screen. She steals the scene with her Groucho-inspired moment singing ‘Lydia The Tattooed Lady’ and what follows is hilarious interplay in near-flawless French with Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story is far from your run-of-the-mill screwball comedy, with its’ satirical core still as fiery as it was in 1940 but avoiding clichés with dollops of farce in the story. But the near fantastical setting of the rich household of the Lords doesn’t mean that there are real life lessons missing in the story. The Lords may be rich but rather than snobbish, they appear as too far removed from the realities of life and they are far from being bad people. As Connor also discovers, the character of a person does not depend on the class they were born into. It becomes a learning curve for all the characters but especially for Tracy, who will finally be honest with herself about who she is, how she views the world and whom she truly loves.

Having a star cast, a top director and a brilliant script does not guarantee a hit film let alone a classic that stands the test of time. Yet The Philadelphia Story has transcended being a hit film and is without doubt a classic and deserves to be acknowledged as such. It would be a win for all concerned. For Hepburn it was a return to form and she was able to shed the ‘box-office poison’ tag attached to her. Cukor enjoyed a top hit after his unceremonious dumping from Gone With The Wind the year before. Stewart would win an Oscar, as would Ogden Stewart and the film would be a top hit for MGM.

But the real winners are classic film fans, who can enjoy the sparkle, wit and brilliance of one of the finest comedies ever made.

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This post is part of the 2018 Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini.  Visit her page to see more great articles!

 

 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Gallipoli (1981): The Australian Experience Of World War One On Film

by Paul Batters

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War is perhaps the most extreme and traumatic experience which humanity subjects itself to. It is also the most tragic and the consequences of war are long lasting. War changes the course of history and its’ impact on individuals, communities and nations are lasting.

Cinema’s depiction of the experience of war often faces challenges in assuring authenticity, maintaining historical accuracy and avoiding becoming jingoistic propaganda. Sadly, there are a number of films, perhaps too many to name, which have failed in these areas, not least due to the practical realities of depicting history on film. Too often, we see the war film turn into a ‘flag-waver’ or worse still pornography, which exploits violence, death and the horrors of war for the delight of an audience. When this does occur, it not only does a disservice to history but more importantly it commits a terrible injustice against those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice.

In the annals of Australian history, the events on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 during World War One have taken on near Spartan proportions. Oft called a ‘baptism of fire’, it has also become one of the most sacred moments in Australian history and its’ commemoration on ANZAC Day, April 25th the most important day on the Australian calendar. Partly mythologised and partly correct, Australians commemorate the day as symbolising the qualities of mateship, courage and sacrifice.

The events of Gallipoli are briefly as follows; at dawn on April 25th, 1915, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) landed on the beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey (a German ally) as part of a British plan to knock Turkey out of the war and take control of the Black Sea. Not only were they landed on the wrong spot but then had to storm steep, rugged cliffs under heavy Turkish fire at terrible cost. Yet despite this turbulent start to the campaign, the ANZACs managed to hold the position and showed incredible courage, tenacity and pragmatism. However, the overall campaign would be a disaster, with over 8,900 ANZACs killed and after nine months, the campaign would be called off, with the withdrawal the only real success.

Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, depicting with authenticity and historical accuracy the Australian experience of the First World War. Whilst it does not focus on the events of April 25th, the film’s climax does focus on the disastrous Battle Of The Nek. It has gone done in Australian military folklore, for its’ sheer tragedy. However, more importantly focuses on the story of the men who fought at Gallipoli and the underlying Australian experience of World War One – a ‘new nation’ who sought to make their mark and show the world what Australians were made of.

In discussing the film and doing justice to the discussion, it is impossible to avoid spoilers and so to avoid such disappointment; fair warning is given to the reader.

From the opening strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor, the fatalist mood is set, down to the titles done in blood red Gothic lettering on a star black screen. It sounds like a funeral dirge and this fatalism will remain with the audience till the film’s climax.

At this point, the first key character is introduced to the audience, young Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee), the 18 year old athlete son of a pastoralist from the Western Australian bush. Weir uses the character of Archie to represent the quintessential Australian archetype; the blond, bronzed boy from the bush. His innocence, his youth and the exuberance he displays heighten the sense of the tragedy that will unfold, and the beautiful and inspirational mantra of ‘being as fast as a leopard’ will take on greater meaning at the climax of the film. The audience discovers he is a talented runner and has potential that may see Archie as a champion, indicated not only by the first time the audience sees him run but also by the later bet he makes with Les (Harold Hopkins), an older stockman on his father’s property who tries to bully Archie but fails in the attempt. Interestingly, the bet also indicates Archie’s fearlessness and desire to take chances, reflecting the heart of not only his inner athlete but also his youth.

Archie is also symbolic of the ANZAC mythology, built up in great part by Australia’s official war historian C.W Bean. Archie, therefore, represents the flower of Australian youth and his reasons for wanting to join are also idealistic at best and naïve and innocent at worst. But they are more complex reasons than he may care to admit and here is where the director taps into the reality of why soldiers join up to fight. Yes the nationalistic fervour is present, as indicated by the singing of patriotic songs, propaganda and jingoism (particularly in the early stages of Australia’s involvement). He will see not wanting to ‘join up’ as cowardice. But Weir also indicates that while Archie publically indicates the need to fight the Germans ‘because he’d be ashamed of himself’ if he didn’t fight (which of course suggests a coming of age motive of boy becoming a man), Archie in his private moment seeks adventure and looks to see the world, whilst escaping his surroundings. Early in the film he reads a newspaper article folded up and kept inside a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book and later is seen standing at his homestead gate, staring into the distance perhaps wondering what is out there in the bigger world. Later, he will agree with the sentiments of ‘not being pushed around for the rest of my bloody life’ suggesting far deeper motives for wanting to go to war.

Archie is also inspired by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), who not only trains Archie but whose adventures have spurred Archie to seek adventure as his uncle once did. Interestingly, despite Archie’s upbringing, he has a strong friendship with Zac (Charles Yunupingu) a young Aboriginal stockman. When taunted by Les about ‘keeping the company of blacks’ and obviously reflecting the open and abhorrent racism of the period, Archie states very clearly ‘Zac’s my mate’. The weighting of the statement cannot be under-estimated, as the concept of a ‘mate’ in the Australian vernacular is suggestive of comradeship, closeness and equality. It is a testament to Archie and perhaps representative of a future Australia, where a younger generation will hold different views about their fellow Indigenous Australians.

The counterpart to Archie (and by extension the ANZAC myth) is Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) who is a railway worker along with his three mates Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and ‘Snow’ (David Argue). As the audience discovers these four, Barney and Bill are reading a newspaper report on the events at Gallipoli. Bill and Snow are clear on their desire to join up, whereas the lanky and unsure Barney is reluctant though shows interest when Bill declares ‘girls go wild over a uniform’. However, Frank is clear that he won’t be joining up and is not baited by Snow declaring that he’s ‘not scared to die for my country, Frank’. But Frank is unsettled and wants for more than to be a railway worker. The four decide to leave and whereas the other three will head off back to the city, fate will see Frank attend a country race – the very one which Archie is going to run in.

As the audience discovers, Frank represents another aspect of the Australian identity – he is of Irish background and therefore has been raised with little love for the British Empire. His larrikin sense of humour, deep cynicism and difficulty with accepting authority is perfectly conveyed by Gibson and permeates his performance throughout the film.

The race meet is an interesting moment in capturing the spirit of the age. A band plays ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ as men drink beer and watch the races. Fate will also see Frank lose the race (and all his money in a bet) while Archie wins the race and the medal, as well as a handsome amount of money. What is fascinating is the recruitment drive that follows, in the form of the Lighthorse, an elite cavalry regiment and symbolic of a bygone age, out of step with the modern, industrial war that soldiers will experience for the first time.

Archie tells his uncle that he will not be returning home but his attempt to join the Lighthorse is thwarted and he is stranded. But he meets the now unemployed Frank in a restaurant and the audience learns a little more about the seemingly more worldly young man. Frank is ‘from the city’ and aims to get back to Perth, where he states he will help Archie join up under an assumed name. Archie is galvanised into action and they hop a train only to find themselves stranded in a desert. The crossing is an opportunity for the two to bond as well as air their differences regarding the war. Frank states with a strong sense of Australian nationhood ‘that it’s not our bloody war…it’s an English war, it’s got nothing to do with us’, leaving Archie angry and horrified. Yet the two bond and an old camel driver in a fascinating and interesting moment in the film saves them during their journey. The old man is perhaps symbolic of Australia’s turn of the century isolation and distance from the rest of the world when he indicates he didn’t know there was a war on. Indeed, he adds that he’s never even seen a big city. Like Frank, he is also puzzled at why Australia is involved, stating he ‘cant see what it has to do with us’. The comment that follows is doused in the dry, cynical and amusing humour that is often present in Australian larrikin humour and a nice touch by Weir.

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Crossing the desert, the boys reach a cattle station where the owner and his family entertain the two young men. Here, he finds himself compelled to try and join the Lighthorse but after they both reach Perth; it is only Archie who is successful, as Frank has never ridden a horse. The two are sadly parted but fate will see them meet again later in the story. Fate seems to be a recurring theme, which is a fitting to the story, as luck is the main reason given by soldiers as their reason for surviving.

But Frank is reunited with his three former mates and they all join together. Heading to Egypt, where Australian forces were stationed before heading to Gallipoli (and later the Western Front), the four mates indulge in ‘horizontal refreshment’ at a local brothel and experience the exotic nature of Cairo via their wits and their humour. Here, Weir expressly uses the characters and the storyline as vehicles for the Australian war narrative. The interactions between the Australians and the locals range between colourful and even abusive, fitting in with the stories and testimonies from former soldiers. In one memorable scene, Frank and his three mates come across some British officers on their horses and refuse to salute. As they ride away, the four friends follow on some donkeys, mimicking the upper-class British accents of the officers, yelling out ‘Tally-Ho!’ to which the officers declare them as ‘undisciplined…rabble’. It is (at least for Australians) a hilarious scene, which sums up the Australian attitude to authority as well as a response to the class system. In fairness, it plays on the stereotype/caricature of the arrogant, upper class British officer but it is not a stereotype monopolised by Australians. Indeed, the testimony of British soldiers (many from working class background) shows them sharing similar sentiments towards their superior officers and by 1916, the term ‘lions being led by donkeys’ had become commonplace.

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During a training exercise in Egypt, Frank reunites with Archie. Frank uses his abilities as a runner, as leverage with the Major Barton (Bill Hunter) to join the Lighthorse, much to the disappointment of his three mates. The last night in Egypt before deployment to Gallipoli sees Frank and Archie enjoy a night of dancing with nurses and drinking champagne at an officer’s ball. It is an evening of happiness, as an atmosphere of joie de vie holds firm amongst the partygoers. It will be a sharp contrast as the screen cuts to a darkened screen and the familiar music from the opening titles reminds the audience that tragedy is to come.

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At Gallipoli, Frank and Archie face life in the trenches and their innocence is tested by the harsh realities of war. The audience witnesses the pragmatism, dry humour and inventiveness which Australian soldiers were known for – from the bad food to making bombs out of old jam tins to shaking hands with a Turkish soldier’s corpse stuck inside a trench wall. Archie seems to be happy to be there, in the belief that he is part of something big whereas Frank struggles and survives by his wits. He discovers his old mates – Bill, Barney and Snow – arriving one night and their bond is renewed with classical Australian humour, putting aside the way they had parted in Egypt.

Yet the harsh realities of war will reach even harsher depths when Frank’s mates take part in the Battle Of Lone Pine. The experience of the battle is brilliantly handled by Weir. The audience never sees the battle but instead hears the cries of Australian soldiers as they leave their trenches to do battle against the Turks, followed by the ghastly sound of machine guns. Franks and Archie, along with an unnamed soldier, are standing in a gravesite, with a peaceful and beautiful sunrise behind them. It is a stark contrast to the horrors of war, experienced by the audience through the sounds of battle, allowing the imagination to visualise the horror, coupled with the looks on Frank’s and Archie’s faces.

As Frank seeks his friends out after the battle, the wounded and dying are everywhere being treated. Bill announces that Barney is dead, thinking that at first he had only tripped. Snow is wounded and dying, handing his diary to Frank to ‘let Mum and Dad know what I did’. Archie tries to comfort Frank in his moment of fear, as the next day they will be facing the enemy in the Battle Of The Nek.

The night before the battle, Major Barton is sitting in his tent drinking the champagne his wife gave him to drink on their anniversary. On his gramophone plays The Pearl Fishers’ Duet by Georges Bizet, which is heart-wrenching duet when placed in the context of the moment. In the duet, two men, best friends since childhood, declare their undying love for each other and that nothing will tear them apart. The parallels to not only the two main characters but to soldiers on both sides of the trenches, across all arenas of war, highlight the cruelty and immorality of war.

Before the battle takes place, Major Barton appoints Archie as the runner meaning he would not need to fight. Archie talks his way out, that he has ‘come a long way to be part of this’ and talks Barton into making Frank the company runner. It means Archie will be facing the Turks the next day.

What follows is perhaps one of the most heart-rending and tragic moments of war depicted on film. Weir re-creates the battle without resorting to over-dramatic resonance and despite Weir taking some poetic licence with history the audience sees a genuine recreation of the battle. Beginning with an artillery bombardment against the Turks, what follows are two waves of men who are slaughtered by the well-set Turkish machine guns. It seems pointless and as Barton declares ‘cold-blooded murder’. Mixed messages and the phone line going dead at a crucial moment create even more confusion and tension. Frank is sent back and forth, delivering messages between Barton and his commanding officer, Colonel Robinson (John Morris) who cruelly repeats the order to push on. The tension mounts as Frank receives the order from General Gardner (a fictional character) that he is ‘re-considering the situation’. But Frank will not make it back in time, as the phone line is repaired and the order from Robinson is to ‘push on’. The strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor return, recalling the link to the fatalist thread which began at the film’s titles.

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As Frank rushes back, Archie practices his breathing, as he would normally do before a big race and begins to repeat the mantra that had inspired him as an athlete. Now it will become his epitaph, with such tragic overtones that the audience can barely contain their emotions. Archie and his fellow soldiers know what their fate is to be and they will face it unflinchingly. Major Barton states he would not ask his men to do what he would not do himself, goes over the top with them. Frank is only metres away as he hears the whistle blow, sending the men to their doom and lets go a blood-curdling scream of anguish.

The final moments show Archie running, before a series of bullets end his life. Archie’s moment of death is frozen in time and the screen fades to black. It signifies the end of the story, as Archie’s life has been snuffed out, stolen from him by a medley of jarring bullets. His body is arched like a runner crossing the line but it is Archie’s last race.

There are some touching moments employed by Weir in the final scenes, such as Archie encountering a weeping Les, who is contemplating his final moments, only seconds before he will go ‘over the top’ and get killed. Before the men go over the top, the audience watches them driving their bayonets into the trench wall, leaving on them letters, wedding rings and other personal items. Archie leaves his medal and the watch his uncle gave him, along with a final letter home. It was a practice sometimes observed on the Western Front and Weir uses the practice to heighten the tragedy of the moment. The frozen moment of Archie’s death is based on Robert Capa’s famous photo from the Spanish Civil War entitled ‘The Falling Soldier’.

Weir’s film certainly addresses many of the issues of war – from the horror of trench warfare and sheer madness of war. But it looks at other important themes as well. In the same way that Archie represents youth and all the excitement, strength, innocence and exuberance that comes with it, he also represents Australia in the same way. In 1915, Australia was a ‘young nation’ filled with hopes for its’ new nationhood and as a nation, Australia would lose its’ innocence and its’ youth on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

There are a few historical inaccuracies, which I will not go into here, as they have been discussed elsewhere. At any rate, they do not take away from the thematic concerns raised by Weir in the film. Additionally, Weir never overdoes the journey or the audience’s experience of that journey.

As a history teacher, who has viewed this film with students numerous times, it has never failed to be a powerful reminder of the cruelty of war and always moves me to tears as the tragedy of the story unfolds. As Australians, we certainly see a little of Archie and Frank in all of us and our connection to the humanity of that time has not diminished, even a hundred years after the guns finally fell silent. Sadly, there are still guns being fired around the world in anger and in hatred. If only we could learn the lessons which Gallipoli has to offer.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 World War One On Film Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the link https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/11/08/the-ww1-on-film-blogathon-maddys-five-favourite-ww1-films/ for access to more articles for this blogathon.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A Patch Of Blue (1965): Overcoming Adversity And Despair

by Paul Batters

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Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.

Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker is to present a story that the audience perceives as real, feeling the reality and experiencing the journey of the characters on the screen. Of the many challenges in expanding the audience’s understanding of the human journey, one is presenting the experience of human disability and giving it authenticity as well as dignity. The opportunity for exploitation, cliché and stereotype, as well as an uniformed narrative, is always present and it takes great sensitivity and understanding on all the key stakeholders in a film production to assure that the story remains genuine.

A Patch Of Blue (1965) is a film, which initially seems in danger of falling into cornball cliché and syrupy storyline. The plot seems simple enough – a young, blind woman who lives a sad, cruel and lonely life befriends a kind, black man and they eventually fall in love. However, the convictions of the performances and the development of the story take our experience far beyond the usual themes and tropes that one may expect. Indeed, the director Guy Green is said to have called the initial premise of the story ‘corny’ but credited the writing of the original novel by Elizabeth Kata as giving it the depth, sensitivity and quality that made it work.

Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young girl living with her abusive mother, Rose-Ann who works as a prostitute, and her alcoholic grandfather. Her existence is one of loneliness and neglect, exacerbated by her lack of education and most of all, her blindness. However, her world begins to change when she befriends Gordon, a young African-American man, who is kind, patient and values her humanity. Gordon feels for her situation and their relationship forms not out of pity but from true friendship.

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Gordon meets her regularly in the park where they first met, where he guides her in developing self-confidence and independence. Selina tells Gordon how she came to be blind; a story so cruel and tragic that the audience cannot help but be as moved as Gordon is. Gordon and Selina become closer and the discovery of their friendship brings things to a head when Rose-Ann finds them in the park where they meet, unleashing an ugly scene. But it also reveals Gordon’s strength of character as he defends and protects Selina, who is unable to defend herself.

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However, friendship has blossomed into something more and Selina declares her love for Gordon. Gordon seems unsure and does not want to take advantage of Selina’s love and innocence, especially since he is a good and decent man. But this reviewer believes that there is love in Gordon’s heart, assured by his willingness to see her chance to grow as an individual and give time for her to find herself.

The film’s ending holds a gentle power that transcends all clichés and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for humanity.

The context of the film cannot be overlooked and allows for greater insights into the film than one may initially perceive. Filmed and released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it also reflects the artistic shift, as well as the political and social shift, that was occurring in the U.S. True, a key theme is the ugliness and cancerous nature of racism and the film challenges many of the precepts of hatred that racism aims to perpetuate. It also brings to light the power of love to conquer division and whilst we may smirk at, sniff at and inflict a sarcastic smugness toward this theme, there is nothing clichéd about the deepest human experience of love nor the political realities of such a theme.

The original story gave a very different and sadly pessimistic twist to the film regarding the girl’s blindness and her discovery that her friend is actually black. Yet Sydney Poitier’s personal commitment to the film saw him involved in the script and its’ development into a more hopeful and uplifting story. The film certainly reflects the idealism of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement in challenging long-established norms and values, as well as the hope that love and righteousness would overcome the bitterness, hatred and division that had underscored American society for so long.

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Yet the key characters are more than just symbolic devices for a message. Selina’s journey and the overcoming of her own adversity is a poignant and powerful story. She is not a figure to be pitied and Hartman’s portrayal does not seek to evoke pity or any superficial pathos. Selina’s blindness is a harsh reality brought about by the cruelty of her circumstances. Additionally, the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of her abusive mother and lack of support from her alcoholic grandfather is not meant as a ploy to elicit simpering melodrama or tears from the audience. Her life is what it is and indeed further exemplifies the exploitive nature that some will go to with someone who has a disability – even if that person is a member of their own family. Incredibly, there does not seem to exist within Selina any bitterness or anger, perhaps because her world is so limited and she knows no other life but moreso because her innate spirit is whole and unbroken, even if her physical self lacks sight. The biblical evocation of being blind yet being able to see certainly comes to mind.

If pity is drawn from the audience, it is not simply because Selina is blind but for other tragic reasons. The constant abuse and lack of any comfort, support or love in her life brings angers as much as pity. Her disability is ultimately only one of the factors that have limited her life and within this framework lies the tragedy of Selina’s life. The crippling effects of neglect and cruelty perhaps even outweigh her disability but one of Gordon’s greatest gifts, other than his friendship and love, is that he helps Selina to find her way to develop and grow. Ultimately, as the film beautifully conveys, her disability is not what truly isolates her and once Gordon guides her, Selina begins to grow and seek out more.

Again, there are complexities to Selina’s self-discovery and her pronounced love for Gordon is not mere infatuation or misplaced gratitude for his friendship. Her heart and soul are immersed in the love she feels for Gordon. It must be remembered that she is young and her sudden newfound freedom and sense of discovery finds her elated. To Gordon’s credit and a strong show of his own love for her, he encourages and explains to Selina that she needs to go to school and discover more about herself – to gain an education, find her independence and sense of identity before any commitments can be made. What is beautiful about their relationship is that it far from a one-sided one; Gordon has also grown and learned from her and found a new self-awareness through her honesty, her responsiveness to him and especially her love of and for him. Despite her ‘blindness’, she sees Gordon’s goodness and kindness, in spite of his own self-doubts. It is this interaction that lifts the film from the superficial into something far deeper.

Director Guy Green shows great sensitivity in showing how Selina experiences the world through her senses. From the joys of beautiful sounds to the terror of being alone and sadly the horrific experiences of rape, Green allows the audience to step into Selina’s world and share these sensory moments from her point of view, giving us a powerful and emotional experience. The film’s soundtrack scored by Jerry Goldsmith offers a beautiful layer of beautiful melodies that underscores the story and lifts it into a stronger emotional experience.

The brilliance of Sydney Poitier is evident in his Golden Globe nominated portrayal. Wesley Lovell in Cinema Sight stated that Poitier is strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. These qualities come to the fore in his defense of Selina against Rose-Ann, her cruel and racist mother but also through his kindness and patience. It is the perfect accompaniment to the sensitive qualities of Elizabeth Hartman, whose innocence and limited screen experience certainly does not suggest lack of talent. On the contrary, Hartman’s performance deservedly saw her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Again, Lovell suggests that her haphazard naiveté helps give the character an add dimension. Hartman comes across as a beautiful spirit aching to soar, trapped in the circumstances of her family and her blindness. Gordon gives her the opportunity to fly.

 

 

Shelly Winters portrays the repulsive and deplorable Rose-Ann beyond the reaches of the superficial, indicating a woman broken by life. Whilst it is easy to despise the woman who has made Selina’s life a misery, Rose-Ann is a woman also trapped by her circumstances, her lack of education and blinded by her own racism. For Rose-Ann, Selina represents her own failing as a mother and her disappointments as a woman. In many ways, Rose-Ann is also disabled and does not have the strength or fortitude to break from it; so imprisoned by her hatred and bigotry. It is a performance which Roger Fristoe on the TCM Website correctly describes as ‘shrewish’ and would garner Winters the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It is important to remove the easy-to-fall-for jaded cynicism in which we view such stories. The New Yorker would call the film ‘forgettable’, which is unfair from this reviewer’s point of view. A Patch Of Blue is far from forgettable and challenges us to see our fellow humans who have a disability to not necessarily look beyond it but embrace it as part of their humanity and value the whole of the individual. Indeed, the character in the film with the greatest insights and understanding is the one who is physically blind yet whose heart has not been blinded by hatred nor twisted into bitterness by life’s cruelties. Selina shows us the simple beauties of life and thus the significance of the title comes into play; the sole visual memory of that she holds of the blue sky before she became tragically blind.

A Patch Of Blue is a film that still holds its’ simple beauty and its’ subtle and gentle power through the performances of Hartman and Poitier and the sensitivity of director Guy Green.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood at https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com.  Please click on the  link for access to more articles for this blogathon. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Tragedy of Lost Art – Silent Film and Finding The Forgotten

by Paul Batters

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Recently an article from The Silent Film Quarterly was shared by on a social media forum by film critic Steven Finkelstein. My interest was piqued not only because I respect Steven’s views and critiquing but by the article’s attention-seeking title which was looking to pick a fight. The title of this article alone ‘No More Tears Over Lost Films’ (penned by Charles Epting) had me choking on my coffee, as my sensibilities flooded with disbelief.

Disbelief turned to spluttering rage after reading the first paragraph and the writer’s response to his own question. To paraphrase, Epting’s premise is that the loss of 90% of films made before 1929 (according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) is nothing to get upset about and that we’re not missing out on anything. To throw fuel on the fire, Epting claimed that the figures highlighting this loss are ‘essentially meaningless’ and that the ‘missing films’ are not significant.

Trying to maintain my composure, I decided to look into Epting’s arguments for why we shouldn’t care that 90% of pre-1929 films are missing and/or permanently gone.

Firstly, Epting makes the claim that for every masterpiece a la Metropolis or Wings, there are ‘countless low-budget, forgettable films’ e.g. His Neighbour’s Pants which if found would not expand our appreciation or understanding of classic cinema in any way or form. Perhaps. He furthers his argument with a fairly facetious comment that ‘by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush’. To attack the incredibly valuable work of Scorsese in trying to save and/or restore lost silent film alone is quite a laughable and reprehensible observation to make. It’s also stunning that someone can make a comment that a film that is lost and unseen has no merit. The most obvious response is ‘how do you know?’ If they have not been seen, how can they be judged as having ‘no merit’?

Additionally, Epting’s draws a long bow of correlation between Wings and His Neighbour’s Pants, in terms of their cinematic and cultural value. No-one would suggest equal artistic merit (despite never having seen the latter!) between the two but why choose such films to compare? Gloria Swanson’s Beyond The Rocks might be a better comparison in terms of time period and production quality. It was a film whose initial loss greatly saddened Swanson and its’ eventual discovery, restoration and screening should surely be celebrated. Similarly, the additional footage found and re-edited into Metropolis is cause for celebration as we have the closest version to date, which reflects the original release. By Epting’s assessment, these shouldn’t matter.

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He continues to ‘argue the point with prose’ by declaring that ‘studios were under no obligation to preserve the nitrate stock for posterity’s sake’. Nonsense. Of course they were and it is to the shame of those studios and to the lament of the filmmakers and their audiences that those films were not preserved. Studios like Paramount were inept in their neglect and derelict in their duty to leave their stock to rot. How many of Clara Bow’s films were lost to this negligence? To the credit of MGM, they invested in the protection of their stock, although the tragic fire of 1967 saw the famed studio lose much of its’ celebrated titles. I wonder Epting’s response to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria would have prompted? Or in the context of this article the Fox Studio vault fire of 1937?

Epting uses some bizarre logic to make his argue his case; even attempting to use ‘data’ as his ace up the sleeve. He states that of the 23 films that received nominations at the 1st Academy Awards in 1928, nearly three-quarters have survived, which he states is ‘not a bad percentage’. Personally, I find it appalling that anyone would base the value of lost or surviving films on numbers alone. But he doesn’t care to dwell on this and then declares that we have 98.7% of Chaplin’s silent films. (I guess this is better than 98.6%…) Incredibly, he argues that the figure is much higher if we consider the number of surviving reels rather than titles. This is perhaps the most absurd use of data I’ve encountered and is akin to comparing numbers of chapters to number of book titles.

The use of data as evidence for his arguments continues to leave convoluted points in place. Some of cinema’s greatest directors, Griffith, Murnau, deMille and Von Stroheim have much of their work intact yet all have varying ‘percentages’ of lost films as well. True, their reputations and legacy remain remarkable and intact regardless of whether those films are found or not. But that is beside the point. Those lost films need to be found, restored and viewed because it’s the work of the aforementioned directors. As fans of classic film, the audience’s experience of those great filmmakers can only be enhanced and we can always learn more about a director and the context of his or her time from their work. To suggest otherwise is laughable at best.

At any rate, rattling some of the best-known directors of the period makes not an argument. What undiscovered works from lesser known directors or artists remain hidden or lost?

The same argument is used regarding the great Lon Chaney Snr and the most frequently discussed lost film, London After Midnight (1927). I have previously written about this film and have stated that the film may disappoint for a number of factors. But I would never suggest that a print of the film would not be valuable to classic film fans. Yes there is no shortage of Chaney films to view and discuss. Does that mean that adding another would not be worth it? According to Epting, the loss of The Miracle Man (1919) is meaningless because we have enough of Chaney’s work anyway. To use an earlier argument of his using ‘data’, what existing footage there is of The Miracle Man is enough at any rate. Being Chaney’s breakout performance and judging by the footage that does exist, it’s not hard to imagine that the film would have been a masterpiece and if found, will prove an exciting discovery. Again, it is hard to accept Epting’s arguments. Imagine suggesting that discovering a lost play by Aeschylus or a previously unknown artwork by Van Gogh is not worth worrying about because we already have existing works by these artists. 

By contrast, two of the silent era’s biggest stars have a vast amount of their work lost and/or missing. Both defined their time and are important in cinema history, particularly in the portrayal and development of archetypes. The first is the original vamp, Theda Bara, who was perhaps the biggest star of the 1910s and certainly one of the first, if not the first sex symbol. We have hardly any of work to view or critique, and regardless of whether they are dated or, to paraphrase Epting, not worth seeking or saving, Bara’s films would certainly be important to cinema history. One of her most celebrated films, from which prints often turn up in film books, is the long-lost Cleopatra (1917). Its’ discovery would be an exciting one and should not prompt disdain from Mr. Epting. The same could be said for Madame Du Barry (1917) or Salome (1918). The loss of such films are a tragedy to our understanding of cinema and its’ early development.

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The second star is the aforementioned Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl, whose story is one of sadness and tragedy despite the charm and naturalness she brought to the screen. Bow ushered in a new era in the 1920s, which eclipsed the previous sex symbol characteristics employed by Bara and reflected the post-WW1 period for young women in a way no one else did on the silver screen. She was the quintessential flapper of the 1920s. Yet almost half her films are lost, which Paramount with willful negligence let deteriorate in their vaults. To re-discover her films and be able to see them again would be a boon to classic film fans.

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Using the reviews and audience responses of the days are not necessarily helpful either. There are numerous films that were poorly received upon their release. Yet time and re-assessment have changed our views and those films have been seen in a new light. In contrast, films that were well received upon release have not always aged well and have even been forgotten in some cases – even Academy Award winners (Cimarron a case in point). At one point, Epting seems to contradict himself by claiming that box office figures during the silent era are notoriously difficult to corroborate and perhaps should not be used as a guide for what is a successful film. Yet he later claims that ‘box office flops’ which are less likely to exist are not a great loss. At any rate, do we simply judge the value of a film by its’ box office receipts?

In fairness to Epting, he tries to employ the positive notion that we should celebrate what silent film does exist and enjoy it. But to denigrate the desire to find and/or preserve silent films that are lost or need restoration is not the stuff of cinephiles. It is most disconcerting when comments such as the following, are made by Epting: Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?

Really?

Lastly, suggesting that what survives is special because the rest has perished becomes a dangerous premise to go by. Indeed, the destruction of past works becomes the drive not only to protect what we have but also becomes the inspiration to appreciate, archive and protect all works and find better and more lasting ways to preserve them. Our appreciation of classic film will not only be enhanced by appreciating what we do have but by continuing to seek out lost treasures and preserving what we do find. Knowledge and understanding does not grow and is not nurtured through limitations but by continually seeking and looking at what the possibilities are.

Thankfully there are many involved in the search and preservation of classic films and undoubtedly they will not be overly perturbed by the sentiments of Mr. Epting. Susan King, who writes on classic film in the Los Angeles Times is one writer I regularly notice who keeps me abreast of new discoveries and the future for film restoration and discovery looks bright, if luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continue their efforts.

And yes, I would like to see His Neighbour’s Pants if Mr. Scorsese manages to restore it.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.