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.

Dr Zhivago (1965): David Lean’s Masterpiece Of Love And Tragedy

by Paul Batters

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Unlike other forms of art, cinema is an art-form, which relies on an incredible diversity of talent and skills, both behind and in front of the camera and before, during and after any shooting occurs. Yet the cinematic vision on the big screen, which is experienced by the audience, is ultimately that of the director. Cinema has seen incredible directors work their craft and perhaps one of the most gifted was David Lean. His sense of cinematography and the human story within an historical context has seen him at the wheel of some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces including The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). Yet he brought Dickens to the screen with incredible sensitivity to the textual integrity of both Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

Yet Lean is also responsible for some of cinema’s most heart-breaking and forever memorable romantic films, with Brief Encounter (1945) ranking as one of the finest films depicting love unrealised. However, the film, which beautifully depicts this powerful theme, struggling against the historical realities of war and revolution, is 1965’s Dr. Zhivago and the focus of this review.

Drawn from Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago is a story told during the tragedy, turmoil and tumult of one of Russia’s (and perhaps the world’s) most significant turning points in modern history – the lead up to, events and aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Lean frames the narrative by telling the story through retrospect, with the voice of the storyteller belonging to KGB General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), the half-brother of the title character. As he tells the story, the audience follows the life of one Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), from his orphaned boyhood to his becoming a doctor and marrying his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). But beneath Yuri’s medical coat lies the heart of a poet, which brings him fame and literary respect. Despite an ideal career in front of him with a solid bourgeois family life in place, Zhivago becomes entranced by Lara (Julie Christie), whom he discovers whilst assisting his mentor in treating her mother who has attempted suicide. He also crosses paths for the first time with Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a political opportunist to whom Lara’s mother (and eventually Lara) will play the role of mistress.

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Despite these personal intrigues, Russia is on a path to revolution and the climate of discontent and proletariat zeal is personified by Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtney), Lara’s fiancé. His own political consciousness will take a turn to radicalism when a peaceful protest is brutally dealt with by Tsarist guards. By chance, Zhivago witnesses the protest and its’ aftermath and he even attempts to treat some of the victims, when warned off by the same guards who have committed the atrocity.

But Russia will face greater challenges when it is plunged into World War One and Zhivago goes to the frontline as a doctor to treat the wounded. Fate sees that Lara (now married to Pasha) joins his medical corps and as a nurse works closely with Zhivago. Meanwhile her now-husband Pasha goes missing in action during a battle, although she will initially not be aware of this. Love blooms for them but they remain true to their respective marriages and the circumstances of the war changes when the October Revolution occurs and the Bolsheviks seize power. With Russia no longer involved in the ‘imperialist war’, the two potential lovers must part and return home. Shariff channels the pain of separation as he watches Lara leave and his eyes well with tears.

Zhivago returns to his family and a much-changed Moscow. Despite the Bolsheviks being in power, civil war has broken out and will continue for the next three to four years. The situation is tenuous and the family struggle, to the point where Zhivago has to sneak out at night and break off fence palings for firewood. But he fortuitously meets his half-brother Yevgraf, who warns him that he needs to get out of Moscow, particularly because his poetry is seen as an affront to the Revolution. Zhivago is deeply hurt by this, his poet’s heart racked that the beauty of poetry should be seen in such a way. Along with his father-in-law Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and his family, they decide to go to their familial Gromeko estate in the Urals.

Yevgraf arranges their papers and a long train journey to the estate. The train ride is difficult and Zhivago sees the effects of the civil war on the countryside, witnessing burnt out villages and desperate people. They also hear of a general named Strelnikov, who is spoken of in near mythical tones, who has been routing ‘counter-revolutionaries’ with incredible success and extreme measures. The audience then discovers that Strelnikov is actually Pasha and during the journey, Zhivago will make the same discovery during a tense moment on the journey.

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But the family will make it to Gromeko and for a time, they live a safe, happy and quiet life, although the news of the Tsar’s execution shocks the family. But fate will take a crucial turn when Zhivago visits nearby Yuriaten and discovers that Lara is living there with her daughter. The reluctance, which held them back during the war, is forgone and their affair begins.

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At this point, this review will leave the reader to discover what follows, in consideration of those who have never experienced Dr Zhivago. And it is certainly a film that is an experience!

Lean shapes, as Kate Muir declared in The UK Times an ‘epic (that) seems too small a word for the sweeping ambition and romance of Dr Zhivago’. The historical context of the story has been criticised, particularly by Bosley Crowther for sentimentalising the Revolution yet the scenes in Moscow afterwards of the over-crowded apartments, people dying of starvation and typhus and the pathetic act of stealing firewood cancels out that criticism for me. With respect, the historical accuracy of the Revolution is not foremost in Lean’s mind (not that there are many glaring inaccuracies) but reflects on the impacts that history has on the individual. More importantly, being a film of romance, it declares that love is founded in all and any circumstances, even during terror and turmoil. The romance between Lara and Zhivago tries to withstand all the obstacles that stand in their way – firstly, propriety and responsibility and afterwards far greater dangers, which will threaten not only their relationship but their lives as well.

Omar Sharif brings the soul of the poet alive in his performance and Julie Christie was never more breathtaking as Lara. The emotion and desperation of their love is beautifully transcribed to the screen. But the other performances are particularly riveting as well. The likes of Alec Guinness as Yevgraf and Ralph Richardson as Alexander in part represent the ‘old guard’ of British stage and screen with their usual finesse. However, Tom Courtney is particularly solid as Pasha/Strelnikov and watching the seismic shift from idealistic revolutionary to a cold, ruthless general is interesting and one asks if more of this character development could have been forthcoming.

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However, Rod Steiger almost steals every scene he is in. Not only is Komarovsky political opportunist but a manipulator of the highest order. Steiger brings to the fore an incredible sense of the character, and whilst it is easy to despise his character, it is impossible not only to admire Steiger’s performance. Komarovsky is a fascinating character, whose sense of realism and understanding of life, cannot be refuted.

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One scene that never fails to arouse my admiration is when the family first board the train. They are confronted with a prisoner (Klaus Kinksi) who declares himself ‘forced labour’. There are almost no words to suggest the power of Kinksi in this moment when he declares himself the ‘only free man’. Kinksi declares ‘long live anarchy’ evoking the pre-revolutionary group of intellectuals and thinkers that were socialist in their hearts but did not support the direction the Bolsheviks took. If ever a cameo appearance dominated a moment in film, then Kinksi achieved it here:

What makes Dr Zhivago an intoxicating film is not only the beautiful photography and grand, sweeping scenarios but the attention to detail to reveal character and unfold the story is also touching – the tree branch tapping at a cold, frosted window during a winter storm, Zhivago watching the silent interchange between Lara and Pasha during a pivotal moment or Zhivago writing his poetry. But the big moments stand strong as well – the mass of deserters leaving the front, the peaceful march that becomes bloody and the vast expanses of the countryside.

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Certainly the film score by Maurice Jarre has almost taken on a life of its’ own. The film’s signature piece ‘Lara’s Theme’ is recognised almost anywhere, even if people have never seen the film. It has become a much-loved piece of music but has received criticism for its’ sentimentality, interestingly enough by Omar Sharif himself. Sharif has gone on record stating that he believed the music to be terribly sentimental and he has not been alone in this criticism.

Interestingly enough, Dr Zhivago received mixed reviews upon its’ initial release but would become a huge earner and a major competitor at the Academy Awards. Legendary critics such as Pauline Kael are not fans of the film describing Lean’s direction as ‘primitive’ and Roger Ebert called it ‘soppy’ whilst still noting Lean’s ‘elaborate sets, his infinite patience with nature and climates, and his meticulous art direction…’ Yet of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have noted the huge influence Lean has had on their own work. Spike Lee felt himself channeling Lean when shaping 1992’s Malcolm X, thinking of the very characteristics that Ebert saw as worthy of note.

James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter goes much further: ‘despite the grim and brooding background, Zhivago has a surging buoyant spirit that is unquenchable. Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience’. If I may re-use from an earlier mention I made regarding the film, Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them. Lean reaches into our hearts and while the charges of sentimentality may ring true to some degree, it is impossible not to be wholly taken by the experience.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 David Lean Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The 2018 David Lean 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.

‘It Happened One Night’ (1934); The First Film To Win The Big Five At The Oscars

by Paul Batters

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‘A film about the making of ‘It Happened One Night’ would have been much funnier than the picture itself’ Frank Capra, Director

In Academy Award history, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) stands tall and is part of cinema folklore. It is one of those films that, as legend has it, simply shouldn’t have happened. No one at the time guessed that it would be not only the biggest hit of 1934 but stand the test of time as one of cinema’s best comedies. The critics weren’t as scathing as is often reported but they weren’t exactly over the moon about it on its’ initial release. The cast and crew never dreamed it would be anything special either. As Peter Van Gelder in ‘Off Screen, On Screen’ states, it was the public that showed good taste. Capra’s gem would also be one of the pioneering films of screwball comedy, spark all sorts of fashion trends and even inspire the birth of one of animation’s most loved and enduring cartoon characters.

Perhaps one of Gable’s lines in the film sums up why it was such a success, when he says to Colbert’s character that it’s ‘a simple story for simple people’. The story sounds simple enough. A rich and spoiled heiress, Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), marries an opportunist named King Westley against her father’s will. The father arranges to have the marriage annulled but his daughter escapes her father and takes a bus from Miami to reach her new husband in New York. On the bus she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who eventually recognises her and makes an offer – he’ll help Ellen get to New York but she must give him the whole story or he gives her up to her father. Ellen agrees but what follows is not what either expected. They fall in love. However, as always – love is not so simple.

Filmmaking is not so simple either and a number of important factors combined to make the film such a success. Susan King in the L.A Times mentions an interesting quote in her review of the film:

‘Capra told Richard Schickel in “The Men Who Made the Movies“: “We made the picture really quickly — four weeks. We stumbled through, we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business.”’

One of its’ most incredible achievements occurred at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel. Here, the industry having finally caught on rewarded the film for what the public already knew. It Happened One Night would win the five major Awards – Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. The film’s Academy Award success has become a benchmark and film fans, critics and punters still wonder each year if any film will achieve the same success.

Audiences loved it. It’s worth having a look at each category in reference to the film and discovering how It Happened One Night, just happened to become one of cinema’s great classic films.

Best Actress – Claudette Colbert

The role of Ellen Andrews was reportedly knocked back by a bevy of actresses including Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan and Myrna Loy, who would later say ‘they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the film. But there were also actresses who would have played the part. Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn had suggested Loretta Young but Capra rejected this. Bette Davis actually wanted the role but Warner Bros. refused her, perhaps as punishment for her pushing to star in Of Human Bondage at RKO. Carole Lombard was interested but was already involved in another project.

Colbert was another Harry Cohn suggestion, which Capra never imagined would work. Colbert had worked with Capra back in 1927 and vowed never to do so again. Additionally, she was a star at Paramount and appearing in a B-Picture studio like Columbia was unheard of. The now oft-told story recounts how Colbert made a huge demand for $50,000 and would only commit to the four-week shoot. Incredibly, Cohn agreed.

According to Joseph McBride in his autobiography of Capra, Colbert fit the role perfectly. The director believed that Colbert had the best figure in Hollywood and channelled her reticence and combativeness on the set to his advantage. Colbert certainly did not endear herself to the cast, with Capra’s cinematographer, Joe Walker resenting her ‘angry sulking’. But this works in the opening scene, when as Ellen she overturns a tray and her later bristling when Ellen reveals her love for Peter to her father. Despite Colbert’s difficulties on the set, she is wonderful in the role and her performance was called ‘lively and engaging’ by the New York Times. Her talent for comedy became apparent and her career would re-ignite, starring in a series of successful comedies throughout the 1930s.

Yet when she completed the film, Colbert got away quick to join friends in a holiday and exclaimed ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world’. 

Colbert was genuinely stunned when she won the Award for Best Actress. Convinced she would never win it, she was boarding a train for New York, when informed she would be receiving the Award. Somehow the train was delayed and she made it to accept the Award. She seems to have been quite emotional upon accepting and added that she owed her award to Frank Capra.

Best Actor – Clark Gable

How Gable ended up in Capra’s film is also part of film folklore. It wasn’t strictly a form of punishment handed down from Mayer for Gable’s apparent complaining of poor roles, although this was part of the reason. Originally, Capra wanted Robert Montgomery but Mayer rejected this, as he wanted to use Montgomery in his own ‘bus picture’. Gable was Capra’s next choice and he got his wish. At that time, Gable was not yet movie royalty and found himself often being cast as the ‘heavy’ or in ‘gigolo’ roles. However, he was not impressed being sent to Columbia to take a role in a B-picture. And he made this known to Capra by being belligerent at first and even turning up drunk. In addition, he had been quite ill before filming which didn’t add to his demeanour.

Like Colbert, Gable never dreamed he would win the Award for Best Actor. He scoffed at the idea and was humbled when he did receive it, stating “There are too many good actors in this business. But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me”. His ability to loosen up, feel natural and discover his own rhythms and comedic timing, allowed Gable to deliver an excellent performance, which stands tall in film history.

Best Screenplay – Robert Riskin

Riskin would be a long time collaborator with Frank Capra, despite there being some animosity over creative ownership. Adapted from Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story Night Bus, it was a story, which no one was particularly keen on filming and the crew initially just saw the film as a job that they needed to get through. Riskin himself, instead of Capra, pitched the film to Cohn at Columbia, which perhaps sealed the deal.

Both MGM and Universal had produced their own ‘bus pictures’ and they had not fared particularly well. Riskin, however, added his own touches to the script, which heightened the comedy and helped drive the story forward with a naturalness that audiences loved. Most importantly Riskin tapped into the key themes that the audience of 1934 Depression-ravaged America understood and found appealing. To quote Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride:

‘ The appeal of the film…was the profoundly satisfying and encouraging spectacle of the proletarian hero humbling, satisfying and finally winning over the ‘spoiled brat’ heiress, a story that not only provided a fantasy of upward mobility, both sexual and economic but…represented the leveling of class barriers in the Depression’

Riskin did this a number of ways in the script. He drew on one of his early poems ‘A Dollar Ninety Three’, which was a satirical look at trying to enjoy a romantic holiday on an empty pocket. As a result, the comedy works as the audience watches the two, especially Ellen Andrews, trying to get by on very little. How would that have resonated with audiences during the Depression? Peter’s integrity, at a time of desperation, is the perfect indicator of his love for Ellen. When meeting her father over a ‘financial matter’, Peter only wants the $39.60 he had to spend on getting Ellen home. Her father is astounded and sees this as a sign of true love.

Riskin and Capra both played up class differences but Riskin was also careful to not completely demonize the rich. Walter Connolly’s role is certainly a sympathetic one, who can see through King Westley as an opportunist.

Riskin’s dialogue is snappy, funny and at times risqué without seeming lewd, and a major strength of the film. The story is not particularly original or even complicated. But even as any well-written comedy has, the moments of drama are well placed and lift the story when needed. Riskin would bristle at Capra’s repeated mantra of ‘one film, one man’, as the collaborative efforts of any film attest. Riskin’s contribution to this classic cannot be overstated.

Best Director – Frank Capra

Capra is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and rightfully so. He had worked and struggled for years at Columbia, a studio that was beneath the contempt of majors such as MGM and Paramount. His success with It Happened One Night put Columbia on the map and out of Poverty Row.

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Capra’s direction of the film is masterful and this is evident in the pacing of a film that isn’t exactly brimming with action and excitement. Yet the audience is captivated by the route the story takes and cares deeply about the characters. This is in great part due to the magic and freshness of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple but also because Capra knew how to exploit and bring out the best in them both. Capra’s natural eye and feel for what would work shapes the film into a comedic and romantic delight. Some of the most memorable scenes become timeless because of Capra’s sensibilities; the ‘Walls Of Jericho’ scene with a shirtless Gable and Colbert in her slip played on the sexual tension needed without the scene being overcooked or exploited pointlessly and the hitch-hiking scene had Capra coax Colbert to show a bare leg. The scene which perhaps illustrates Capra’s fine sense of direction and pacing is the ‘The Man On The Flying Trapeze” scene – a folksy and joyous scene which seemed natural, warm and spontaneous. It provides an intimate moment of singing and music, without the usual big budget and fantastical production that was typical of a musical scene. Gable seems to be enjoying it immensely although Colbert stated that she initially couldn’t see how it worked into the story. Capra gently alleviated her concerns and it was afterwards that Colbert saw the appeal of the scene and realized that ‘I knew we had something’. Capra had sensed this whilst filming the scene, as extras and even the bus driver joined in. Extra cameras were brought in and the scene also provided a reason for the bus crash. Capra saw the appeal of the scene and worked to bring it into his over-arching vision and feel for ‘the people’.

The critics appreciated his work. Kate Cameron in The Daily News exclaimed ‘The direction is excellent. Frank Capra never lets his picture lag for a moment. It is never very exciting, but it moves along snappily and it is full of amusing situations’. Today, critics have been just as appreciative. David Kehr in The Chicago Reader has stated, ‘This is Capra at his best, very funny and very light, with a minimum of populist posturing’.

Winning his first Academy Award had a sense of the bittersweet for Capra. He has been terribly ill prior to the ceremony and would for some time suffer what he called the ‘catastrophe of success’ in spite of future classics such as Mr Deeds Comes To Town (1936) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) to come.

Best Film – Columbia Pictures (Harry Cohn and Frank Capra)

The category celebrates and acknowledges that film is a collaborative art-form and It Happened One Night combines the best elements of the artform. Again, not many expected the film to win any awards, yet it snagged the biggest prize of all and there are few who would argue today that it didn’t deserve it.

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Capra acknowledged that comedies at that point in time were not something that many stars were aching to work in. It Happened One Night changed all that and the fact that major studios now rushed to produce romantic and screwball comedies. The appeal of the film was not merely an audience fad – it had something and it still has today.

Eric Melin in his review for Scene-Stealers.com sums up the lasting appeal of the film brilliantly:

‘Viewed even today with all of its plot elements recycled ad nauseam by Hollywood (for rom-coms, road trip comedies, odd couple/buddy films, etc.), the film still holds up because we believe Gable and Colbert and can identify with them both right away’.

Capra’s direction, Riskin’s script and particularly the magic of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple all combined to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and special films.

When the Award for Best Picture was announced, it was Harry Cohn who accepted the award. After 11 years, playing second fiddle to the majors, the studio he headed had finally made it. Incredibly, Cohn produced an infinitely rare moment of humility, generosity and deference to Capra and Riskin, where he thanked them and stated about himself ‘I was only an innocent bystander’.

The film that never should have been has remained beloved by many and deservedly so.

Special Mentions

  • The Supporting Cast

There are a number of faces whose time on the screen is limited yet add memorable and valuable performances to the film. Walter Connolly is wonderful as Ellen’s millionaire father, who is anything but a heartless baron. That’s Ward Bond as the bus driver, who will later appear with Gable in Gone With The Wind and would have a long career in film and television. Roscoe Karns as Oscar Shapely ‘from Orange, New Jersey’ is as annoying as always and the delightful Alan Hale has a short moment as a small-time grifter. My personal favourite is Charles C. Wilson as Joe Gordon, the tough, brash newspaper editor with a heart of gold.

  • The Inspiration for Bugs Bunny

Both Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett have gone on record stating that the Gable’s eating a carrot and talking with his mouth full inspired the creation of everyone’s favourite rabbit. Additionally, the name ‘Bugs’ could have been inspired during the scene where Peter scares Oscar Shapely off by mentioning the terrible fate of ‘Bugs’ Dooley.

  • The Sets

Most of the scenes were shot without purpose built sets. The budget simply wasn’t there. The bus scenes were filmed on a cut-away and perhaps the most interesting scene from a technical point of view was the scene where Peter and Ellen almost kiss whilst sleeping in hay. That scene was actually filmed inside a circus tent during the day, with the sounds of crickets edited in later. This sound technique was very new and would become normal practice soon afterwards.

A special thank you to Kellee at Unspoken and Freckled, Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula (aka @Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, for the opportunity to be part of the ’31 Days Of Oscar’ Blogathon. For links to the this event, please click on the following link: 

https://kelleepratt.com/2018/02/23/day-one-31-days-of-oscar-blogathon/

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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.

Casablanca: 75 Years Old And Still Going Strong – Flaws And All

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by Paul Batters

Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.

One of the most enduring films in the Hollywood pantheon of classic films turns 75 this year on November 26th. It is usually on most people’s list of favourite classic films, not least of all because of one Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman star in it. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson) and a delightful soundtrack (who doesn’t swoon a little at ‘As Time Goes By’).

It also endures because it’s a love story – one that does not have a fairy tale ending but speaks of the torture and pain of love far more than if it did. Bogie is all style but emanates even greater substance. It is impossible not to look at Bergman’s face and become lost in her gaze. Set during World War Two, the love story is intertwined with political intrigue, Nazis, ‘causes’ and desperate people during desperate times.

Obviously I’m talking the irrepressible Warner Bros. classic, Casablanca.

Initially released on Nov 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theatre, Casablanca proved a massive hit, making Bogart a bona fide star after years of secondary roles. It was the middle Of World War Two and the background to the film would have been very familiar to audiences. War was tearing the world apart with no clear end in sight. If the famous “Le Marseillaise” scene still puts a lump in your throat, can you imagine its’ impact back then? And the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman stands tall above the countless on-screen couples who have declared love for each other.

Yet it has also been called the ‘best worst film ever made’. Pauline Kael called it ‘schlocky’ and Umberto Eco called it ‘mediocre’ by cinematic standards. Vincent Sherman stated the story ‘was crap but what a great piece of crap!’.

And if you really look at Casablanca carefully – you will discover a few strange mistakes and holes in the plot. We’re going to look at some of those things that you may or may not have noticed before. Hopefully, it won’t change your love affair with one of Hollywood’s most enduring films!

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  1. The ‘Letters Of Transit’

The letters of transit seem to be what everybody is after in the film. People want them to get out of Casablanca (the town, not the film) and people want them to stop people getting out of Casablanca. It is the plot device that drives the story forward and is indeed one of the most ludicrous devices every employed – and here’s why.

At that particular point in history, Morocco was indirectly under Nazi control, via the proxy of Vichy France (the turncoat puppet government in the south of France). How would any letters signed by De Gaulle hold any weight? De Gaulle was a Free French leader in exile in London. Anything signed by De Gaulle wouldn’t be worth a free trip!

It’s one of the most ridiculous McGuffins ever used in film. And yet somehow they got away with it. And poor old Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pays a heck of price for them.

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  1. Victor Laszlo

The believed dead and now returned husband of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is a leader of the Resistance. Not only that, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) has escaped from a concentration camp. And of all places to go, he goes to Casablanca – where there are Nazis! They let him walk around, while impeccably dressed, and he even frequents Rick’s Café. Yes they are hoping to catch Laszlo in the act of getting the letters of transit and thus have grounds to arrest him. But what other grounds do these Nazis need? He’s an ‘enemy of the Third Reich’, a leader of the Resistance AND an escapee from the custody of the Gestapo. Grounds for his arrest? As if they need them!

Laszlo’s very open presence is enough of an act of open defiance towards the Nazis. Yet he taunts them openly as well! He openly admits to Colonel Strasser that he knows who the Resistance leaders are across German-occupied territory. And who can forget the famous scene where he encourages the band in Rick’s Café to play “La Marseillaise” over German officers as they sing. Laszlo certainly takes his chances to enrage the Nazis.

It’s also absurd that the Nazis are reluctant to arrest Laszlo to maintain appearances. What appearances? The world is in the thick of the war and the Nazis are not holding back from doing some pretty despicable things. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Laszlo would have been arrested on sight.

  1. The Airport

Have a good look at the airport scene. Go on – take a good look.

Did you notice the following?

It’s very foggy, with a rain-slicked tarmac and Bogart is wearing a heavy trench coat and hat. In Morocco? Even in winter it’s pretty warm in North Africa.

  1. Rick’s Café Americain

Rick’s Café is one of the swankiest places, resplendent with lovely décor and quite the casino. And the place is packed! With Rick reaching Morocco a short while after being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris (when the Germans arrive en force), how has he managed to acquire enough capital to set up such a place in such a short time?

  1. Refugees

Casablanca appears packed with a vast array of European refugees – all dressed to the nines, despite losing everything in their home countries and more than happy to drink and gamble at Rick’s, as well as being stereotyped to the hilt. True – many are gambling to make enough money to escape and the sense of desperation is evoked in groups of refugees staring hopefully into the skies as the plane they need to be on leaves. Yet there is still an absurdity to that notion. However, whilst Morocco was a stop over for refugees escaping from Europe, by the time period of the film (December 1941), this was not the case and there were far better methods of getting out of Europe. In fact, by the time depicted in the film, there were very few refugees left in Morocco. Still, it is easy to feel for the young Bulgarian couple which Captain Renault aims to capitalise on and whom Rick ultimately saves.

  1. Nazis – in Casablanca?

Another inaccuracy – though a minor one. There were no uniformed German troops stationed in Morocco during World War Two. But then Casablanca has a good share of historical inaccuracies; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) talks of the Americans ‘blundering into Berlin in 1918’ but of course that never happened.

  1. The Script

If at times the players on screen look confused and bemused, it’s because they were. The original script was changed, re-edited and re-written daily for a variety of reasons – partly to please the Breen Office and even the decision on who would get the girl was made late in the piece.

The Epstein brothers, legendary for their nonchalance, wisecracks and irreverence, incredibly even towards their boss Jack Warner, would make some wonderful additions to the script, peppering it with their famous wit. But many writers worked on the film, usually writing material only needed for that day or the next, which was very typical in the industry. In A.M Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart, the story is recounted just how the Epsteins worked:

‘They said “we need another scene” and we sat down and wrote it. And we’d take the pages to the set ourselves.

They were asked ‘You mean you brought it, said “Here” and went back to your office?’

Epstein shrugged: ‘It worked”.

He also added that they got no help from anyone and did all their own work.

Despite the confusion, Bogart made the touches that remain immortal, especially the two famous lines, which he improvised from the original:

 

But all the additions and ad-libs ‘trickled in’ as Sperber and Lax point out, during the weeks of re-writes and constantly changing dialogue. There was an almost daily routine of learning new dialogue and discarding old, leaving tempers tested and often inflamed. Bergman recalled on a number of occasions seeing Bogart and Wallis returning from lunch arguing and Bogart and Curtiz also clashed.

It was also Bogart who won two major points against the director, Michael Curtiz (a feat in itself!) – one, that Rick would not kiss Ilsa one last time before they part and two, that Rick would not shoot Strasser in the back. Such instances certainly helped to make Casablanca a better film than it would have been otherwise.

There are quite a few near-clichés in terms of character and theme as well. The script doesn’t truly allow for character complexity or depth of development. Indeed, the script is filled with characters with familiar tropes– the drunken hero, the enigmatic woman, the loyal friend, the bad guy who comes good in the end and a variety of stereotyped European characteristics. This is true for themes as well – the love triangle, sacrifice, the impact of war and the plight of the desperate.

  1. A Few Other Minor Issues

There are quite a few problems with continuity. See if you can keep track of the times Bogart’s cigarette changes length in a number of scenes. Not to mention the changes in the detail of uniforms that both Strasser and Renault are wearing. And the much-loved piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is no piano player. Wilson was actually a drummer and whilst his voice is wonderful, his miming of playing the piano is less so.

Casablanca was not intended to be a masterpiece but was one of many films being made during the days of the studio system. It certainly was an A-film but one of many being made during the period. The fingerprints of some of Warner Bros. best can be found to have touched this film with their indelible mark – the production values of Hal Wallis, music of Max Steiner, the aforementioned gems in the script by the Epstein Brothers, Curtiz’s direction and the nice little touches of humour. I always chuckle when Captain Renault closes Rick’s Cafe because he is shocked to find gambling going on, only to be given his own winnings a second later. And of course it was an attempt at Hollywood escapism during the war with a film set during the war.

For all their expertise and experience, none of them could possibly have guessed that their collaborative effort would result in one of cinema’s most loved films. Yet from all reports, the Warner Bros. creative team knew they ‘had something’ and upon its’ release the film went beyond all initial expectations, breaking gross-taking records and capturing the imagination of audiences – particularly in the face of World War Two.

Both Casablanca’s initial and enduring success is also testimony to the film making process, and that even if a formula is in place, the elements and compounds added to the formula is what counts. The initial roles were never designed specifically for Bogart and Bergman, the now timeless song ‘As Time Goes By’ was going to be edited out and decisions regarding who would sing it was also never assured. As we have seen, despite the countless edits and changes, the magic that makes the movies conjured up a true classic.

What has made it endure is the magic between Bogart and Bergman on screen, the beautiful musical score (with one of cinema’s most famous and heart-reaching songs), the touches (small and large) that added that something special that defines classic film, some fantastic dialogue which gave us some of cinema’s greatest lines, the brilliant and illustrious supporting cast and the very essence of the story that everyone can associate with; the tragedy of love unfounded. Is there anyone that does not hold in his or her heart a tale of having it broken? Or had to let go off a true love? And of course, it is a tale of ultimate love, where sacrifice is made out of true love for someone. Whatever flaws exist in Casablanca, there is something more going on that forever holds us to it.

Like a diamond far overcoming any flaws it may have, perhaps one of cinema’s finest scenes (below) pulls all the magic together. Dooley Wilson’s singing pulls at our heart strings as Bergman’s face conveys all the haunting pain of past love, followed by their seeing each other again. How can one not weep while watching Casablanca?

After 75 years since it first opened, Casablanca has never let go of its’ audience. 

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