All The King’s Men (1949): The Power of the Political Drama

by Paul Batters

Do you know what good comes out of?…Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you? Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford)

The ‘political drama’ is a concept fraught with trip-wires and potholes. It can lose its’ impact over time, either through the context becoming lost on newer audiences or simply because the story loses impact, particularly if it pales against current events. Neither rings true regarding All The King’s Men, a film whose key character and context runs almost too close to the events of the political sphere of 2020. Of course, the political drama can also be controversial, particularly if it is dealing with the corridors of power, politicians and leaders (real or supposed) and the machinations of governments.

Released through Columbia Studios and written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, All The King’s Men was based on the 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. In hindsight, it’s incredible that the film was made. The very nature of the story, the Code (which forbid any condemnation of government and the political system) and the soon-to-dawn McCarthy Era in a fervent era of Cold War paranoia makes for a courageous production. (Rossen would find himself dragged before HUAC and questioned). It’s controversial nature also lies in its brutal honesty and cold realism, with a powerful and all-encompassing cynicism from which there is no redemption.

In the discussion of All The King’s Men, this review will not hold back from political discussion nor apologise for making political comment. Indeed, the nature of the film was to confront it’s audience with the dangers of populism, demagoguery, corruption, nepotism and how idealism can become stifled and destroyed by realpolitik. As a result, All The King’s Men cannot be discussed, in this reviewer’s opinion, without that political discourse, particularly in the current climate of not only U.S politics (on which the story draws from) but indeed politics around the world. Ultimately, All The King’s Men is a story of the rise and fall of Willie Stark and his character arc is a fascinating one. But Rossen was also making a comment on the very system which allowed for that rise to occur and what would follow in Stark’s wake.

Despite the obvious nods to the infamous Louisiana governor Huey Long, the fictional character of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a complex individual who initially appears as a possible hero. Initially, the audience discovers a man who wants to do good and make positive changes to his community, yet finds himself alone, stifled and bullied into submission and failure. His apparent decency may very well be part of his undoing but it is also his naivety of the political game that marks his early political failures. However, he is a very quick learner and after an attempt by the local party machine to use him, Stark gets wise and knows what he has to do to win.

The power of populism as a force to gain political power is employed by Willie Stark, driven by an instinctive understanding rather than the seasoned nuances of a politician. Stark understands whose support he needs – the average Joe, the ‘hicks’ – and he is smart enough to include himself as one of them. As Governor, he distances himself from the party machinations and usual political shylocking whilst involving himself in them with an all or nothing approach. Yet he is also open about the need for deal-making, if he can achieve his aims and objectives for the people of the state. The extremes that Willie Stark will go to are simply a means to an end; case in point, his impeachment which will see him tell his supporters that the impeachment is not an attack on him but an attack on them. In another instance, he tries to find ‘dirt’ on Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), the attorney-general who has resigned with disgust from Stark’s administration. The parallels to the current political climate need not be drawn out.

The tragedy is that Willie Stark was a man who sought to fight the good fight but sold out his principles and values for power and influence. Any semblance of good has been supplanted by the poison of cynicism and the harsh realities of the political game. Yet he has a loyal base of support and the voters believe in his program, despite his many sins, and appear totally accepting of the man who speaks their language. But the fact that the newspapers and radio have been manipulated also suggests the dangers of a monopolised media – and again, the relevance of this to today is clear. The newsreel which Stark and his inner circle watch which asks is he ‘messiah or dictator?’ highlights the polarisation of politics in Stark’s state and the problems that emerge from such a polarisation. There are some terrifying, prophetic images of Stark’s base marching with torches and backed by Stark’s own private force. Rossen’s commentary on the dangers of fascism are more than evident.

As William Brogdon pointed out in his 1949 review in Variety, ‘the politics practiced, in the story were not Long’s alone’. Interestingly enough, Columbia’s infamous boss Harry Cohn would become almost obsessed with the character of Willie Stark, seeing traits of the man within himself and perhaps recognising the modus operandi that he himself employed in his own studio. Like Stark, Cohn was a self-made man and also used punishment and reward as a means of executing his power and authority. To Cohn’s credit, he gave Rossen plenty of freedom and went with Rossen’s decisions, particularly with the key decision of casting Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark (Cohn had wanted Spencer Tracy, Rossen stuck to his guns).

Production-wise, Rossen crafts a film with a starkness, obviously inspired by the Italian Realists. The documentary-style shooting, however, is also crossed with elements of noir, as much in rich tones as cinematic technique. Particularly effective are the use of montage sequences to track his rise to power and the election process as he gets there. The audience watches a man with a strong solid compass slide into a man thirsty for power. Despite the monstrous things that Willie Stark does, as Governor he actually does some amazing things for his state; incredible infrastructure programs, better education and health opportunities and in all of his megalomania he never loses touch with the people. Nevertheless, Willie Stark uses his touch with the people to use and abuse his mandate, as well all the vestiges of democracy including the judiciary, the electoral system and his position as governor.

The question also arises if Willie Stark was ever the moral man and always a man wanting power just waiting to emerge. It’s a compelling argument aided and abetted by Rossen in subtle ways, as much as by the blunt realism of the camera work. The montage that truly highlights Willie Stark’s road to Emmaus moment is his fairground speech. Intercut with real townspeople (from around the North California state) and again shot in the documentary/newsreel style, it is the powerful turning point where Willie Stark the idealist and naïve political pawn becomes Willie Stark the political realist and head-kicker.

The story is told through Jack Burden (John Ireland), a reporter who will become very close to Stark and part of his inner circle. His idealism, too, will take a steep nose-dive and his bitter cynicism will eat away at him, as he also watches the girl he loves, Anne (Joanne Dru), become Willie’s mistress. Ireland is solid in his performance but perhaps the most telling character in the inner circle is Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge). Sadie is also cynical and hard, initially part of the scheme to use Willie but she falls for him and remains loyal, hoping against hope that Willie will leave his wife for her. But she cannot compete physically with the younger and more beautiful Anne. The hard and tough secretary looking in the mirror and lamenting the scars of childhood smallpox is a sad and difficult moment to watch. McCambridge is outstanding as Sadie and deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.

The film though belongs to Broderick Crawford and despite a magnificent cast, he carries the heavy weight of the film with drive and determination. It’s a heck of a character arc to build and deliver from social crusader to a monstrous political beast, particularly in a film that was highly controversial. Cohn and the studio wanted a big name to assure the film’s success and Crawford was a relatively unknown quantity. It’s perhaps his greatest performance, one that is genuine and authentic and Crawford would be rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar as a result.

The greatest irony of all is that Willie Stark becomes what he first claimed to detest, and the family he sought to look after and protect is abused and used for his political purposes. His son Tom (John Derek) pays a terrible price and though not explicitly portrayed, the sense of a son filled with admiration for his father collapsing into disgust and hatred, is certainly part of the overall tragedy. His wife Lucy (Anne Seymour) who has loved and supported him through the difficult times is cast aside and plays along with the façade. Her stoicism and love for her son shows a greater strength of character than initially supposed. Willie betrays those who have given their lives to him and ultimately betrays himself as well, as he gives himself over to drink, thirst for power and a fall for his own megalomania. In this sense, All The King’s Men is as much a Greek tragedy as it is a political drama. Stark is a fallen king intoxicated by his own hubris as much by the alcohol he consumes.

All The King’s Men would also win Best Picture and whilst Rossen missed out on Best Director, his vision was realised. Sadly, Rossen would face greater pain by being blacklisted and despite later success with The Hustler (1961), would fall ill and die in 1966.

The parameters of Willie Stark’s character perhaps do not seem so extreme in the modern era where a man like Donald Trump becomes the U.S President. But the film does make the dangerous point that the machinations of the political machine allows for the creation of such people and that corruption, nepotism and the opportunities for populists are endemic to the system not the people that it creates. Stark is a product of the system and learns that for him to benefit from it, he needs to work within it and even corrupt it further. As outlined earlier, this was a dangerous and highly incendiary commentary on American politics for the time, though also understandable against the backdrop of post-war cynicism.

William Brogdon’s 1949 Variety review stated ‘the chicanery of politics as have been practiced in the past… may crop up again’. Truer words were never spoken as we scan the political landscape of the last five years.

This article is an entry in the CMBA Politics On Film Blogathon for October 20 – 23. Thank you so much for the opportunity to take part. I encourage to visit the link (above) to read some interesting articles on Politics On Film.

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 Mummy (1932): A Unique Monster in the Universal Pantheon Of Monsters

by Paul Batters

 ‘My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods‘ Imhotep (Boris Karloff)

Directed by the great cinematographer Karl Freund, The Mummy (1932) is one of the great films from the classic horror cycle that began at Universal with Dracula (1931). A huge success at the time, it would cement Karloff (billed by only his last name) as a huge star. 

With Boris Karloff now hailed as the heir to the throne vacated by the death of Lon Chaney Snr (and incidentally and arguably missed out on by Bela Lugosi), opportunities for his talents were sought out after his film-stealing performance as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Like the Monster ‘created’ by Colin Clive, Karloff’s Imhotep would also be brough to life. However, unlike the determined doctor using science to bring his creature to life, the long-dead mummified body of Imhotep would be re-animated by magic. Thus The Mummy is truly a supernatural horror film, closer in essence to its’ predecessor Dracula and indeed even sharing similar tropes.

What makes The Mummy unique is that the story is one not directly drawn from a literary classic or traditional folklore. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, and even The Wolfman, the story of The Mummy was one concocted from the minds of movie-makers alone. True, the idea of a mummy brought back to life had emerged during the silent era but it the story for the 1932 classic came primarily from the writing of John Balderston and the creative team at Universal. Balderston, of course, is famous for the stage-play he co-wrote for Dracula, which would be adapted for the film version. Gifted with the job of writing the screenplay for The Mummy, Balderston borrowed the key storyline from Dracula and adapted it to the idea of a re-animated mummy seeking out the reincarnation of his former love and doing battle with those trying to protect her. 

There are carbon copy elements from Dracula down to characterisation and casting as well. Like the vampire count, Imhotep aka Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) is a supernatural being with a powerful will, incredible powers of telepathy and hypnotism and great wisdom and knowledge from their dark powers. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story was taken from the stage production of Dracula, was the concept of the undead being seeking out the reincarnation of his long dead love. It was a plot device that worked well and adds a tragic, as well as horrific element to the story. Zita Johann would play Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-en-Amun and despite a solid stage career, is primarily known for her role as the object Imhotep’s love and desire. David Manners plays a similar role to the one he played in Dracula as Frank Whemple, the young man in love with Helen and seeking to protect her. And the ever-wise and sagacious expert of the occult is again played by Edward Van Sloan, this time named Professor Muller. 

Of course, at the time of the film’s production, the world was still excited by and in the grip of ‘Tutmania’ and the mysteries of Ancient Egypt after the exciting discovery of the Boy-King’s tomb in 1922. Many of the film’s Surrounding the discovery was a great deal of sensationalism and mystery, particularly with the story of the ‘curse’ (a completely invented tale to sell newspapers) and the amazing finds in the tomb. Note that the opening of the film starts with the ‘1921 Expedition’ which is certainly a nod to Carter’s 1922 discovery. Indeed the love of Imhotep is named after the wife of Tutankhamun. But of course, in classic Hollywood style, a fair amount of the ‘Egyptology’ in the film is invented and appropriated rather than based in fact and history. But it feels convincing and authentic, which is the key to a film’s success – convincing the audience of its believability.

Yet, interestingly enough there were other influences outside of Ancient Egypt and the already lifted tropes from Dracula. As film historian Paul M. Jensen points out, the story was also inspired and influenced by the short story written by Nina Wilcox Putnam called Cagliostro, a tale of an 18th century Italian occult figure who claimed to have lived through the ages. Balderston would also draw from this to shape the character of Imhotep. Initially, Cagliostro was the vehicle for Karloff which Universal wanted to capitalise on after his amazing success after Frankenstein. The Mummy would be the final result. 

From start to finish, The Mummy is an eerie homage to the tragedy of love unfounded, as much as it is an atmospheric horror-melodrama. The opening scenes are unforgettable and perhaps the most memorable in the film, as the audience watches the young archaeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) scream and go mad with an endless, maniacal laugh as the re-animated mummy goes ‘for a little walk’. It remains a remarkable moment in classic film yet the only time that the audience sees Karloff in the celebrated and heavily promoted make-up, created by the legendary Jack Pierce. Yet the dread and menace of Ardeth Bey touched with the pathos and tragedy of his cruel death and lost love, is beautifully conveyed by Karloff. His stiff movement and measured tone barely hides the power underneath. His deathly stare would become famous as well, with Freund perfecting the technique he pioneered in Dracula by directing two lights into Karloff’s eyes. Freund’s camera work lifts the film out of his own sometimes pedestrian direction. 

The flashback is also exceptional and gives fascinating back story, as well as give the audiences the depth of the tragedy of Imhotep and the sheer horror of his punishment by being buried alive. It feels like a silent film within the main story and the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for the terrible fate of Imhotep, even if his alias Ardeth Bey emanates fear and dread. It’s a strong visual montage sequence that gives The Mummy a greater depth and perspective.

There are many wonderful moments of supernatural horror and magic, which also make the story unique. The Scroll of Thoth (an invented plot device) is more than superstition but has a magical power that is all too evident to not only Imhotep but the learned Muller – and of course the audience discovers this in the opening scene. Statues come alive to give warning or execute justice and offer protection (as is the key role of the goddess Isis) which is particularly effective and again assists in underpinning the supernatural atmosphere of the film. The effect of Imhotep reaching out to send death to those attempting to thwart his plans add to the tension, as well as highlight how dangerous and determined the risen mummy is in his quest.

Of the classic monsters, the Mummy itself is perhaps over-shadowed by the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The Wolfman and does not seem to inspire the same dread and fear as its’ fellow creatures. It is perhaps also unfortunate that it would be nearly ten years before the next cycle of ‘Mummy’ movies would be produced by Universal. Whilst enjoyable and certainly lots of fun, the pedigree isn’t there and they are a far cry from the atmosphere and quality of the original film. In fact, other than the title, the four latter films hold no real connection with the original film, other than exploiting the make-up and re-using scenes from the original. In some ways, the Mummy has suffered the same fate as the Frankenstein Monster, becoming a one-dimensional and mindless automaton instead of the tortured and tragic figure as first portrayed.

Nevertheless, The Mummy is a wonderful showcase for the talents of Boris Karloff. The film remains a jewel in the Universal crown of classic film and one that still gives classic film fans the chills. 

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.

Update: The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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A huge thank you for the great support so far and have been humbled and excited by the fantastic response! Obviously, it’s still some time away but as far more experienced hosts know, it’s important to be organised and get ahead.

Please don’t forget to share on your own social media, as the more participants the merrier! If there is a fellow blogger you think would enjoy taking part, please let them know. 

Below are the current topic choices and again a warm thanks to the participants! 

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlett Claw (1944) – Pale Writer

Little Women (1994) and (2019) – Pale Writer

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Scarlet Street (1945) – Down These Mean Streets

Crimes At The Dark House (1940) – The Old Hollywood Garden

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Overture Books And Films

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Wrong Box (1966) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

Anna Karenina (1935) and (1948) – Robert Short

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) –  Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

The Ministry Of Fear (1944) – The Wonderful World Of Cinema

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940) – Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

The Prince And The Pauper –Backstory: New Looks At Classic Film

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

Cyrano De Bergerac (1950) –  Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Greystoke (1984) –Diary Of A Movie Maniac 

Rebbeca (1940) – Stars And Letters

The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), Dracula (1931) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) – MovieRob

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – MovieMovieBlogBlog

Some wonderful writers are taking part and I trust that you are excited as I am to see some of the great chosen topics. Please check the list carefully and hopefully it will inspire your own choices, as well as give you some ideas on what to do. (The list will be regularly updated as well).

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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China Seas (1935): Celebrating Clark Gable On The Silver Screen

by Paul Batters

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Of all the stars that graced the silver screen during MGM’s heyday, none was ever as dominant as Clark Gable. Younger generations may have never seen any of his films, yet Gable’s face is still recognisable to them today.  Justifiably, he was called the ‘King Of Hollywood’ and was without doubt the king of his home turf – MGM Studios. For classic film fans, there are quite a number of Gable’s films that are particularly celebrated, none moreso than Gone With The Wind.

During the mid 1930s, Gable was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, which was certainly assured after his Academy Award winning performance in 1934’s sleeper hit, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra and also starring Claudette Colbert. The film was a ‘punishment’ of sorts by MGM, lending Gable to the studio when he complained about the roles he was getting. It would showcase Gable’s talent for screwball comedy, as well as quick repartee. MGM would not make that mistake again and would jealously guard their now biggest star.

With stardom assured, MGM spared little expense in the films in which Gable featured. During the period that immediately followed, many film historians tend to focus on two films –Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Both reveal classic MGM production values, with outstanding casts and were huge hits for MGM. They are both exemplary in showcasing Gable’s screen presence and talent. Yet China Seas, the film he made not long after It Happened One Night, whilst not completely forgotten, does not get as much attention as the aforementioned films.

As biographer Warren G. Harris points out, Gable had just come off an Oscar win which meant a new lucrative MGM contract, with far better conditions. China Seas would be the first film of this new contract, which meant star treatment for Gable.

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Directed by Tay Garnett, MGM’s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, had eyed China Seas for production since 1931.  With some of MGM’s biggest stars and a supporting cast with good depth, China Seas was a big hit for the glamorous studio in 1935 and further cemented Gable’s superstar status. An adventure/romance sea epic, China Seas, was the perfect vehicle for Gable and MGM’s other major star, Jean Harlow, with both appearing in their fourth film together. The studio wanted to capitalise on the wonderful screen chemistry that the two shared and they certainly sparkle, with the raw sexuality of Harlow matching the man’s man machismo of Gable.

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From the opening scene, Herbert Stothart’s musical score underpins the busyness of the port of contemporary Hong Kong, which in 1935 means it’s an integral part of the British Empire. The hustle and bustle eventually focuses on the ‘Kin Lu’, a steamer that runs between Hong Kong and that other port of British empirical power of the period, Singapore. The steamer’s captain, Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), has a reputation as tough, fearless and a hard player. Most are wise enough to stay out of his way or at the very least make sure they don’t arouse his ire if they can’t. However, we soon discover that deep down Gaskell is a good guy, particularly when parrying with the ships’ owner, Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith). Despite all appearances, the two share a mutual respect and affection, and Sir Guy recognises that he has a captain that is worth keeping. The duplicitous Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Berry) wears the façade of a friendly though rough-edged trader in the Orient but as the audience soon discovers, Jamesy has other plans and is in league with a gang of pirates. Garnett sets the tension early and establishes the story’s later complication when a number of the aforementioned Chinese pirates disguised as women are caught by Gaskell. McArdle praises Gaskell whilst sending out a message to keep the caught pirates quiet. McArdle’s warmth and geniality is the perfect cover for a dangerous man in league with desperate men.

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Furthermore, the 250,000 British Pounds in gold bullion to be transported to Singapore has been hidden in the steamroller. McArdle knows it’s on board through his contacts and he and the pirate gang are after it. But naturally only Gaskell (and the audience) knows where it is. Will McArdle and the pirates get the gold?

We get a feel for who Gaskell is early in the piece, particularly when addressing his crew. As he chews out the first mate Dawson (Dudley Digges), Gaskell barks at him, ‘Its bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a Captain that looks like me, without having a Chief Officer who looks like you!’ When entering his quarters, Gaskell finds the young newly appointed officer Rockwell (William Henry) mocking his captain in the mirror, to which Gaskell gives Rockwell all the space necessary to embarrass himself. Suitably chastened, Rockwell asks for forgiveness, to which Gaskell smiles and says forget it. Gaskell may be tough but deep down he’s a ‘good egg’. He even smiles to himself once the inexperienced officer leaves the cabin, tripping over himself.

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But we also see Gaskell’s compassion for the newly appointed Third Officer Davids (Lewis Stone), a former captain himself who was disgraced after being the only survivor of a pirate raid, whilst the rest of his crew perished. Gaskell is gruff with Davids yet welcomes him on board and even casually offers him one of his own uniforms. There is an element of well-placed foreshadowing, and even Gaskell looks up afterward with a moment of thought. Will Davids rise to the occasion if and when needed?

Before long Gaskell finds that former girlfriend and ‘professional entertainer’ Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland (Jean Harlow) is on board. It seems that Dolly is very much a part of the China Seas, illustrated by her familiarity with the crew and her warm interaction with McArdle as they are boarding.  The interaction is a great example of the snappy and witty dialogue that liberally peppers the script from start to finish:

Dolly: Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy.

Jamesy: Still crazy about that Gaskell, huh? Well, whenever you get tired of running around with an Airedale and you want to run around with a St. Bernard, why you let me know.

Dolly: Sure.Whenever I get lost in the Alps, I’ll whistle for you.

Jamesy: All right, I’ll come running.

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Gaskell tries to shoo her off the ship, to which she Dolly gets defensive and defiant:

Gaskell: Get on your horse, we’re shoving off.

Dolly: Say, why are you so anxious to get me out of your sight? Is that hunk of caviar makin’ the round trip?

Gaskell: What hunk of caviar

Dolly: That redhead Russian princess that was on board from Singapore.

Gaskell: She isn’t a Russian and she isn’t a princess and I have my doubts about her hair color.

But Dolly manipulates Gaskell into letting her stay. Their relationship seems to be one that has been more physical than emotional, judging by Gaskell’s annoyance when she gets ‘close’, after which she returns to being sassy to save the situation.

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But Gaskell will discover a greater affaire de Coeur to deal with, when he discovers that a former love from England, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) is on board. The now widowed English rose hints at their former (and possible future) romance when she delicately quips to him ‘I’m in your hands again, Alan’.  When told immediately afterwards that he looks like he’s seen a ghost, Gaskell slowly responds ‘I have…’. All this is quietly witnessed by Dolly and the pang of sadness she emotes is impossible to ignore.

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Before long the ship is at sea and Gaskell and Sybil become reunited and are joined by Sir Guy at dinner. Dolly, encouraged by McArdle thanks to his desire to disrupt and distract Gaskell, cannot hide her jealousy nor allude to the details of her prior relationship with Gaskell. Her hot temper and aggression gets the better of her, leaving some of the other guests embarrassed and feeling awkward. Gaskell responds to Dolly’s jibes with a cold smile and a short ‘that’s right, darling’ sending Dolly a clear message. But perhaps the most telling and revealing moment belongs to Sybil, who says nothing but smiles sadly at Dolly and then responds with equal sadness to Dolly’s aggressive demand:

Dolly: What are you grinning at?

Sybil: You must be very fond of him.

Dolly: What makes you think so?

Sybil: To humiliate yourself like this.

The situation gets uglier as Dolly declares loudly ‘don’t worry, he knows where the royal suite is and so do I! And I had it the first time I sailed on this ship!’ Not long after, while trying to apologise, Dolly gets the cold treatment from Gaskell who tells her to stay far away.

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But Dolly is not going to quit her man, despite her initial congratulations when she hears Gaskell and Sybil are going to be married. It means not only quitting the China Seas but also obviously leaving Dolly.  Attempting to see if the rumours are true, Gaskell finds Dolly in his cabin under the pretense that she is borrowing one of his books ‘to improve my mind’. What follows is Gaskell’s barely veiled revelation as to why he is marrying Sybil, with a cruel putdown that is impossible to not decipher:

Gaskell: Did you ever see an English river, Dolly?

Dolly: No, I’m dumb with geography, just like I am with everything else.

Gaskell:Well, it’s cool and clear and clean. Put a stream like that alongside any river out here – dirty, yellow, muddy – you’ll see the difference.

Needless to say, Dolly is unimpressed at the insult.

The drama and sniping that follows will test Gaskell particularly when Dolly begins flirting and drinking with McArdle.

But the real test will be the mighty storm that has suddenly sprung up and the passengers, as well as the precious cargo, are in danger. The storm sequence is packed with action and beautifully shot and Gaskell risks all to save the steamroller, as well as protect his ship. By all accounts, Gable did his own stunts much to the concern of MGM.. But it takes nothing away from what still proves an exciting action sequence that leaves the audience holding their breath.  The typhoon proves to be an ominous sign of worst to come.

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Here also is where Garnett uses well-placed secondary characters to further the story. The disgraced former captain Davids, now Third Officer, fails in his duty to help during the storm. He has also failed Gaskell who put his faith in him and gave him a chance. Will he redeem himself? Will he be the only one who lets Gaskell down?

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The audience discovers the answer as the turning point in the film arrives when Dolly is put to the test in terms of her love and loyalty towards Gaskell. Whilst playing a drinking game with McArdle, Dolly discovers the truth and later risks all to try and warn Gaskell about McArdle’s intentions. His fatigue after the storm, disappointment and anger towards Dolly results in his rejection of her, much to his misfortune. Like the classic and clichéd woman scorned, Dolly swears she will make Gaskell pay and sure enough painfully goes into league with McArdle to assist him in his plans.

 

Dolly: You just wait! I’ll fix you! You’ll be lower than a coolie! You’ll be lower than Davids! You’ll come crawlin’ to me on your knees!

With Dolly’s assistance, McArdle puts his plan into action and the pirates board seeking the gold. Robbing the passengers, Gaskell appears calm and collected as they ransack the ship for the gold. McArdle’s duplicity is played to the hilt as he pretends to be concerned whilst secretly desperate to find the gold. Gaskell’s toughness is put to the test as the pirates torture him with ‘the boot’ and despite McArdle’s false concern, Gaskell merely replies that his size is 9C. The brutality of the torture is difficult to bear and we see just how callous McArdle is as well. He’s clever enough to play out his deception, even as Gaskell is being tortured. Yet all is not doom and gloom, as Davids redeems himself during the pirate raid – exactly how will not be revealed here.

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Indeed, to avoid spoilers, this reviewer will not divulge the result of the pirate raid or what the consequences are. Needless to say, the tension and drama continues right to the very end with Gable at his very best.

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Overall, China Seasis a thoroughly entertaining feature film, with the perfect combination of action, adventure, romance and even some comic relief.  Running at 87 minutes, it feels a little longer thanks to plenty of action and well-written dialogue. Additionally, the film is very well paced and Garnett handles direction with appropriate use of tension with tact to drive the story forward. Humour is injected in the right places and it certainly works well when Gable and Harlow fire their lines at each other. Much of the fire of their work during the Pre-Code Era had to be tempered for China Seas but their fire is a sizzling slow burn that does not disappoint. There’s also the allure of an exotic setting a la Red Dust, with plenty of sexual jealousy to add spice to the adventure. Admittedly, Harlow is less the loose, dangerous woman of Red Dust and more a loveable party-girl who only has eyes for Gable and whose heart belongs to him as well.

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The sub-plots and intrigues of the secondary characters at times may seem superfluous but they rarely interrupt the story and indeed often work well to add interest. Lewis Stone as the disgraced former captain, who initially shows cowardice during a storm, finds the hero within himself during the great crisis moment in the film. There are interjections of humour with the permanently inebriated Charlie McCaleb (Robert Benchley) oblivious to the typhoon’s might as he attempts to play chopsticks on a piano that’s wreaking havoc and later trying to light a cigarette as waves crash into the film. Throughout the film, Benchley throws out highbrow one-liners that would be right at home around the Algonquin Round Table.

Jamesy: Twenty years on the China Seas and she never lost a spangle.

McCaleb: I had a spangle once. It was a cocker spangle. She had a liter of field mice.

Conversely, Edward Brophy as Timmons provides some blue-collar humour surrounding the sub-plot of his wife’s jewellery. Played by the beautiful Lillian Bond, it’s hard to imagine her with Brophy but she’s also manipulated by Romanoff (Akim Tamiroff) with suggestions that would have been more explicit before the Code took hold.  Some great dialogue also highlights an uncredited appearance by Hattie McDaniel as Isabel McCarthy, Dolly’s maid:

Dolly: Would you say that I look like a lady?

Isabel: No, sir, Miss Dolly. I been with you all too long to insult you that way.

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With all due respect to the film’s cast and creators, there is fair amount of silliness and removal from reality in China Seas. The story itself is pretty far fetched and Gable as an Englishman who is ex-Navy is about as believable as a snowman in the Sahara. How a character like Dolly ends up in the China Seas is anyone’s guess. Many of the characters seem to fit the formula but it’s a formula that works and suspense of disbelief is very easy to achieve because China Seasis so much fun to watch and enjoy. The dialogue and interaction between the characters feels natural, leaving the audience believing in the relationships that are depicted on the screen.  The stiltedness of dialogue and movement that could be found in some of the early Pre-Code films is no longer present and it seems that MGM found a ‘formula’ that worked well. Yes, the parallels with Red Dust are evident but Garnett does more with the material he has and the action scenes are incredibly well done.

Not only is the success of China Seastestament to Tay Garnett as director and the high production values afforded by Thalberg and MGM but also due in particular to the great cast. For Thalberg, it was a return to the all-star cast format that had been used by MGM in Grand Hotel. And it certainly paid off. Beery is outstanding as the dangerous McArdle, particularly as he appears so likeable as the friendly trader. The audience can even feel for him when he readily admits his feelings for Dolly:

Jamesy: Lovin’ you is the only decent thing I ever did in my entire life. And even that was a mistake.

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Aubrey is as British as they come, with a dignity in profile that even Barrymore would admire. The gorgeous Rosalind Russell as an English aristocrat shows poise even in a secondary role and to the script writer’s credit shows a little more than your standard secondary role. And of course, Jean Harlow is at her very best, matching Gable moment for moment and certainly outshines some of her more celebrated roles from the early 1930s. For my money, the chemistry that they shared on screen is best appreciated in this film.

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But it’s the incredible talent of Clark Gable that makes this film a real gem. Yes Gable is playing Gable but that’s why it’s so much fun. Tough, uncompromising and with a powerful sense of self-deprecation, there are moments galore where you cannot help but like him. With so many great films as exemplars of Clark Gable at his best, China Seas should be added to the list of must-see Gable films.

 

This article is a proud entry into the Second Clark Gable Blogathon, kindly hosted by Love Letters To Hollywood. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please go to the link for other great articles on the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable.

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.

 

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.

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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John Ford’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ – A Thematic Review

By Paul Batters

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‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still – real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then’.

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors, John Ford, famously described himself as a director ‘who makes westerns’. Indeed, Ford raised the bar regarding the quality of the western – taking it beyond the long established standard, as evidenced in films such as Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Fort Apache. Ford possessed the reputation of a tough, hard-drinking Irishman yet he directed three sensitive, powerful and iconic films, which remain exemplars in the pantheon of classic film; The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1945) and the focus of this article How Green Was My Valley (1941).

How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a story told in retrospect of a Welsh family of coal-miners, impacted upon by the changes that come to their village, as well as the challenges of life – both of which they have little control over. The power of the film lies in its’ central themes, which are universal to all families and the individuals within the family unit.

Let us look deeper into the themes and messages of the film.

For me, the theme that reaches deepest is the power of memory. It is at the very beginning of the film and at its’ bittersweet ending – and of course permeates the very essence of the story. Indeed, the story is told as the narrator, Huw Morgan, is about to leave the village he so dearly loves. As he is about to leave, he retells his story and the visual imprint of the impoverished and dying village of the present evaporates into the green and beautiful village of the narrator’s past. The village-scape, his family and the people of the village come alive, accentuated with the beautiful musical score by Alfred Newman. It is a dream-like moment, where as Huw points out, he remembers his home before the grey sludge of the mines took over the valley. What remains is the durability of memory and at the end of the film, he says of his home “it’s still there”; alive in his mind and heart and the sounds of his brothers singing, the love of his family and the moments and lessons of his life which cannot be erased.

The adult Huw (Irving Pichel) narrates the story but we as the audience experience the tale through Huw as a young boy (Roddy McDowall) and the landmark moments in his life. Indeed, two voices of the same person speak and memory brings back the voice of the child. It is through the child’s eyes that the story comes alive. What we eventually realize as audience is that whilst a child can be quite invisible to the adults around him or her, what they see and remember can be quite vivid and their perceptions are quite strong, even if they don’t have the full capacity to articulate those perceptions at that time.

One of the most touching moments reflecting this is evident during a difficult turning point for the family, when three of Huw’s brothers refuse to bow to their father’s authority. Differing over how the workers in the mine should address their concerns, the family at the dinner table becomes torn and the brothers leave the house. The father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) sits alone at the table, resigned to the fate of his family, with Huw at the other end, sitting silently. Not wanting to feel invisible, Hugh clanks his knife and fork against his plate and then coughs, trying to get his father’s attention. Without looking up, the father responds, “Yes my son, I know you are there”.

Obviously, family is a central theme, as the film focuses on the story of the Morgan family. The tight-knit Morgan household is a place where great love is shown. The nature of rite and ritual is also important in establishing family norms and structure, as shown by the men’s daily routine of washing the coal dust from their bodies and how the family sits together at the table. Huw’s father, Gwilym, is a solid and hard-working, sitting at the head of the table and leading the family in prayer. His mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), is kind, loving and also strong in character, moving around the table to much sure that her family is looked after and always being ‘the last to start her dinner and the first to finish’. Family roles are clear and obviously paternalistic in the context of 19th century Wales, where Huw reminisces ‘whilst my father was the head of the family, my mother was its’ heart’.

But despite the closeness of family and clarity of role and position, turmoil results when outside forces question the values and norms of the household. What will befall the Morgans, befalls every family – the divisions which can split a family through religion, politics and the questioning of authority in the household. The normal and natural challenging of parental authority must eventuate, as does the child becoming an adult and developing their own ideas and feelings. The family becomes divided as industrial turmoil hits the mine and threats of striking and the forming of a union for the mine-workers, splits the class-conscious brothers from their conservative and too-trusting father. Whilst there will be a settlement of sorts and the love of the family will endure, it cannot completely withstand the harsh economic realities and Huw’s older brothers will move on elsewhere. Three of the sons will move to America, which in those times meant that they would never see their family again – a reality that their father, Gwilym, sadly recognizes when announcing the send-off he’s planning.

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On a larger scale the change in the family structure reveals the inevitability of change in the greater world, whether we want to face it or not. The impacts of change in the film are shown as negative – loss of community and the values that held it together, the division of family, the change that the mine brings to the village and the impacts that greater change outside the village brings to the community. The ‘hero’ of the film, the new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), tries to bring positive change to the community but eventually feels defeated, broken by the hypocrisy of his church, the ugliness that has crept into the community and the love which he can never hope to realize for Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). The physical change, which occurs to the village from green valley to slag heap becomes an allegory for the change in the community. Huw feels this deeply and clarifies this feeling when he narrates the story. The change is irreversible and Hugh knows this, seeing that his village will never be the same and of course neither will he.

Yet there are lessons learned from the struggles, which also provide a new light and opportunity for growth in Huw. The fight against injustice becomes an important theme in the film and Huw not only watches the battle against exploitation and poverty by the miners but the fight that the pastor undertakes as well. He fights against ignorance and gossip and stands with the miners in their fight as well. Huw sees the Christ-model alive and bright in the pastor’s mission, particularly when he stands against the deacons in his church. Encouraging the miners to form a union, he is accused of stepping outside his ministry, to which he responds ‘my mission is to fight whatever stands between man and God’. His final speech to the community is perhaps one of film’s finest, railing against those whose faith is founded in the fear of God but not the love of Jesus. The hypocrisy of religion and its’ failings as human institution meant to provide comfort, as Angharad points out, is accentuated by the pastor’s very real Christianity. As Mr. Gruffydd is about to leave, he looks at Hugh who looks back with great sorrow. But Huw’s steps to fighting injustice begin that moment, when he follows the pastor out of the church, ignoring the call of the deacons to remain.

As the audience we watch Huw growing up and facing the obstacles, difficulties and joys that come with the process. It is an obvious theme yet a very universal one. Whilst we see the narrator as a boy, we also experience his witnessing of the change in his family and his village and community. Just as importantly, we also experience how growing up impacts on him. Huw must at some point leave he safety of his family, when he begins school and must deal with not only a bully in the classroom but the harsh cruelty of his teacher. The beatings from the bully and the teacher reflect the harshness of life and whilst his older and stronger brothers could easily solve these problems, Huw shows fortitude and growth when he says he must deal with it himself. To his mother’s horror, Huw’s father arranges for him to learn to box and eventually the school bully is dealt with. The violence of youth is shown to be inescapable and a reality that needs to be faced – with violence.

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Ford also focuses on the importance of strong role models, evident in the shape of Huw’s father Gwilym and particularly Mr. Gruffydd the pastor who, despite being an important figure in the village, will be sacrificed by the community to their bigotry and small-mindedness. Both are principled men, strong in their convictions and honorable in their intentions. Yet despite their great strength of character, both have serious flaws in terms of their trust of others and their naivety. Gwilym states that owners of the mine are not ‘savages’ and that they are ‘men like us’, initially blind to the exploitation and poor treatment of the miners. He, himself, will be treated badly by the management of the mine and the village community will turn on him as well, despite Gwilym ’s hand of friendship perennially extended to all. Mr Gruffyd will himself see the folly of his failings, even sharing them with Huw, whose eyes are filled with tears:

‘Huw, I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth. I thought I would lead an army greater than Alexander ever dreamed of, not to conquer nations, but to liberate mankind. With truth. With the golden sound of the Word. But only a few of them heard. Only a few of you understood’.

Huw sees these flaws in both men, even as a boy, which heightens the tragedy and deepens the love that he holds for both men, in spite of their naivety. Yet there is also a harsh reality, which Hugh discovers as a boy, which is also part of the reality of life and a painful lesson in growing up –we lose those we love. Huw will see Mr. Gruffydd leave his village and see his father die in a mining disaster. As a child, Huw discovers the true cost of loss and thus his innocence will be lost as well.

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But not only does Huw have strong role models in the form of men. There are strong women as well, particularly in the form of his mother, Beth, delivered via a stirring performance by Sara Allgood (which would win her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination at the Oscars). She loves her husband but is not afraid to give him a piece of her mind and speaks with dignity and strength. At one of the turning points in the film, most of the men have turned on Gwilym for not supporting their strike, despite his own sons being involved with the miners’ union. One cold, blustery night as the strikers meet, Beth tells Huw to take her to the meeting, to which a shocked Huw responds that it’s no place for a woman. But Beth is unfettered and with firmness states that ‘there’s a place there for this woman!’ Her speech to the gathered men is fiercer than the snow storm howling around their heads, as she rains down scorn upon them:

‘You are a lot of cowards to go against him. He has done nothing against you and he never has and you know it well. How some of you, you smug-faced hypocrites, can sit in the same Chapel with him I cannot tell’.

But Beth Morgan is far from done:

‘There’s one thing more I’ve got to say and it is this. If harm comes to my Gwilym, I will find out the men and I will kill them with my two hands. And this I will swear by God Almighty’.

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It is doubtful that any man at that meeting would test Beth Morgan on her word. 

The power of love and the joy and pain it brings to one’s life spans Huw’s experience in the film. At first, the love of family is clear and uncompromised, with closeness between parents and their children and between the siblings. With each crises faced by the family, love ultimately holds them together and even when there are fractures in the family, the bonds of love also protect them. The family split during the workers’ dispute sees the sons initially defy their father and leave the house. But they will later return, not out of fear for their father but out of love for the family. Huw will recount the pain the family endures when the eldest brother is killed and three of his other brothers leave to seek their fortunes in America. Love has its’ price, which Huw will learn in the most difficult way.

As the film progresses, the experience of ‘first love’ arrives for Huw when he remembers falling for his eldest brother’s fiancée. Of course, this first love is one of innocence and impossibility but it foreshadows one of the greatest tragedies also examined, the terrible pain of love unrealized and the realities of life preventing true love from being founded. The mutual and deep love held between his sister Angharad and the pastor Mr Griffin, will see further turmoil for Huw’s family but most of all for the aforementioned two. As much as Mr. Gruffydd loves Antharrad, ne makes it clear that the reality for them would be poverty and economic difficulty, stating that he could not bear seeing her hair go grey before its’ time. In the end, she will marry the snobbish son of the mine-owner, which will mean economic stability but a cold and dead marriage, devoid of true love. Angharad becomes a prisoner in a gilded cage and Mr. Gruffydd is ‘not the same’. The family servant spreads gossip and rumor which will end in infecting the village ‘like the black slag’ from the mine spreading through the hearts and minds of the village folk. It will takes its’ toll on Huw’s family.

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But Mr. Gruffydd does not take this so easily and rains on the heads of the congregation his fury at their malicious gossip, their black hearts and hypocrisy. It is the final battle in his futile war against ignorance and as he points out, the desire to bring the ‘love of Jesus’ into the community and abandon their concept of faith as fear of God. It is this overcoming of adversity that permeates throughout the story as narrated by Huw. There are personal battles to be fought – the pastor bringing enlightenment and perspective to the village is but one of them. Huw must deal with his own obstacles and trials. Along with his mother, Hugh faces near death when both face illness and injury after falling into freezing water. His recovery is long and difficult, during which Mr Griffin raises his spirit and gives him hope, in spite of the dire prognosis from the doctor. Again, with Mr. Gruffydd’s help, Huw walks again despite his initial lack of faith. But Mr Gruffyd is also speaking to Huw’s spirit and faith, and offers lessons that will stay with Huw:

‘And as your father cleans his lamp to have good light, so keep clean your spirit, huh?…By prayer, Huw. And by prayer, I don’t mean shouting, mumbling, and wallowing like a hog in religious sentiment. Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking. When you pray, think. Think well what you’re saying. Make your thoughts into things that are solid. In that way, your prayer will have strength, and that strength will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit’.

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Mr. Gruffydd also encourages the men to form their trade union, against the will of the senior pastors of the church, and they stand up against the mine-owners. Theirs is a fight against exploitation and for their rights, which will cause not only division in the village but within Huw’s family. Yet it is this fight against adversity, which informs Huw on the need to fight against repression and certainly inspires his own aforementioned private battles.

The film may end in tragedy but again we are reminded that we hold true in our hearts and minds can truly die. The people in Huw’s life are always with him because of the love they have given him and he in return. Their lessons stay with him and guide him still as an adult; they give him, as Mr. Gruffydd teaches him, strength (that) will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit. At the beginning of the film, Huw shares a touching yet powerful sentiment, which rings true even as the final credits roll:

‘Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday’.

Some critics suggest the film sails dangerously close into over-sentimentality – but this is an unfair criticism. The pain of memory is addressed and central to the story and at times the reflection touches one of the themes of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ – “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Huw’s memories are not completely romanticized and as the story unfolds, this becomes more than evident. True, we are all capable of evoking nostalgia of our own family and growing up and we do so regularly. However, in the deepest regions of our hearts, we know and can recall the vast array of moments and events that shape our own family story and how it has impacted on us. The stark and harsh realities of memory are evoked through the direction of John Ford and his eye is cast across the film’s narrative. 

‘How Green Was My Valley’ has powerful lessons not tied to a different era nor shaped purely by Hollywood’s studio system. The film’s power remains. much like the memory of love and family has for the adult Huw. The lessons transcend time and context. John Ford left us an artwork for us to not only learn from but emote with and touch us in a way that only classic films can. 

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.