Re-watching Problematic Movies: Gone with the Wind (1939)

In the late ’90s, one of my history classes (in university) examined this iconic film. Our 30ish professor (like many of us) grew up watching GWTW; she considered it very problematic, yet also admired Scarlett O’Hara as an empowered woman. I recall her getting a bit emotional about the story; I’m sure there are millions of others who admired parts of this movie (and novel). Upon closer examination, we find mixed messages, not only w/ regard to history and slavery, but re: war, social codes, love, and marriage.

I’ll think about that tomorrow. -Scarlett’s motto

No doubt this movie (made for less than $4M) was a technical feat! Students of film have been studying it for decades; on recent viewing, I was esp. struck by how well light and shadow were used (production design). There are 50+ speaking roles and 2,400 extras. Out of the 1,400 actresses interviewed for the part of Scarlett, 400 were asked to do readings. Here are some of the actresses considered for the role (who screen tested): Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, and Joan Bennett. GWTW also used special effects, most notably the burning of Atlanta. Scarlett is described as having green eyes; Leigh’s eye color was corrected (post-production) from blue to green. As she could not dance, Leigh has a body double in the charity auction ball scene. One thing which amazed my mom, but it’s true- Leigh tightened her corset to 18″ (as Scarlett comments)!

Did you know GWTW went through several directors? David O. Selznick (producer) fired George Cukor as director b/c (as a gay man), Selznick though he would be unable to properly direct love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett. Cukor (who had a reputation of getting strong performances from women) continued to privately coach both Leigh and de Havilland on weekends. The scene where Mammy reprimands Scarlett for not eating is one of the few remaining in the final film shot by Cukor. Leigh wasn’t happy w/ macho director Victor Fleming’s style; when she asked for constructive advice, he said to “take the script and stick it up her royal British ass.” Of course, classic movie fans know that Leigh was involved w/ Laurence Olivier during this time; she must’ve gotten a lot of advice from him!

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865), which both set slaves free, have minimal effects on the plot of GWTW. The house servants at Tara (Mammy, Pork, Prissy and Uncle Peter) continue to serve the same masters and their families. We are to assume that they don’t want to leave or have nowhere to go. Scarlett thinks to herself (in the novel): “There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy.” If this isn’t romanticizing “the Old South” (antebellum) days, then I don’t know what is!

What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things, and I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you. -Mammy (telling it like it is) to Scarlett

When I watched it as a kid, I was surprised to see that Mammy was more concerned w/ propriety than Scarlett; I also saw that she was crucial to this story and has some memorable lines. After Scarlett and Rhett marry, he admits to his new wife that he wants Mammy’s good opinion. As an adult, I realized that- of course- Mammy had to know all the rules which governed the behavior of young ladies! Her life was inextricably tied w/ that of her owners, the O’Haras, and primarily Scarlett. Miss Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, seems to have been the ideal woman in Mammy’s eyes; Scarlett doesn’t quite measure up.

The fact that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in (segregated) Atlanta outraged her friend Clark Gable; he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she could attend. McDaniel (in her mid-40s) became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. She was criticized by some African-Americans; she commented that she’d “rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” Before she hit the big screen, McDaniel had a career as a singer, traveling across the South (as many black performers did in the early 1900s). Butterfly McQueen (who played Prissy) said that her stereotypical role totally put her off acting. Who could blame her!? Prissy is characterized as lazy and deceitful. In one scene, Scarlett slaps her hard on the face- ouch! McQueen went on to pursue graduate education in Political Science.

On my recent re-watch, I noticed that the field foreman from Tara, Big Sam (Everett Brown), was given two memorable scenes. Big Sam is walking through Atlanta (w/ his fellow male slaves) on the way to digging ditches for the Confederate Army. He is spotted by (a very excited) Scarlett; they catch up on news from Tara. Later on (after the Civil War), Big Sam is the one who rescues Scarlett after she is attacked by a white man while driving her buggy through the “shanty town.” He recognizes her voice, runs to the road, and beats up the would-be robber- what a heroic moment!

I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance. -Rhett comments to gentleman gathered together for the ball at Twelve Oaks

One of the main reasons to watch GWTW is Gable (then in his late 30s); he is full of charm, danger, mischief, and (after Bonnie is born)- a bit of vulnerability. As my dad commented years ago: “Why is Scarlett obsessed w/ Ashley when Rhett is around!?” Though he’s not gung-ho about the war (neither is Ashley), Rhett does eventually succeed as a “blockade runner.” Rhett is not about “the cause” (slavery), he’s in it for profit and excitement. After the burning of Atlanta, he joins “the lost cause.” Once their marriage grows sour, the troubled (and potentially violent) side of Rhett emerges. Modern audiences may cringe at the infamous (and quite disturbing) scene where he carries Scarlett up a long stairway, saying he “won’t be shut out” (of her bedroom) one night.

Author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler was Basil Rathbone. The only four actors David O. Selznick seriously considered for the role were Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. The chief impediment to Gable’s casting was his MGM contract; this was the era of contract players. He was not drawn to the material, didn’t see himself in a period film, and doubted that he could live up to the public’s anticipation. He was persuaded by a $50,000 bonus, which would enable him to divorce his second wife and marry actress Carole Lombard. Gable disliked his most famous film, which he called “a woman’s picture.” Leigh said she hated kissing Gable b/c of his bad breath. He was rumored to have false teeth (a result of too much smoking). Gable would sometimes eat garlic before his kissing scenes w/ Leigh- ugh!

Open your eyes and look at me. No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how. -Rhett says to Scarlett (after he returns from Paris)

Selznick always wanted Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes, but Howard felt that he was too old (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film). My dad agrees w/ that! Howard wore extra makeup and a hairpiece to make him appear younger. Selznick was only able to persuade him to take the part by offering him a producer credit on Intermezzo (1939). Vincent Price, Dennis Morgan, Douglass Montgomery, and Melvyn Douglas were among the actors who tested for the part of Ashley. Many viewers on Twitter (during my re-watch) were annoyed w/ the fact that Howard kept his English accent. Also, some women noted that he was a jerk for “giving Scarlett hope” and “leading her on” in several scenes. I realized that scene where Ashley and Scarlett talk re: maybe running away from Tara (and their responsibilities) was done very well- acting and the look of it.

While Scarlett is colorful/rebellious/independent, Ashley’s cousin/wife, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), is the epitome of a demure/calm/traditional lady. Her hairdo is simple (no curls), she dresses plainly (not seeking attention from men), and is 100% devoted to just one man- Ashley. Others (incl. elders of her society) look to her to determine what is “proper.” Melanie is selfless and giving (tending to wounded soldiers w/o complaint); Scarlett is selfish (wanting to run away from nursing, marrying her sister’s beau- Frank Kennedy- for his money, etc.)

In one memorable scene, when a Union soldier comes to rob Tara, Melanie (weak after giving birth) grabs a sword and clambers down the stairs in an effort to help Scarlett. There is a moral strength to Melanie; Scarlett (who is physically much tougher) eventually realizes that. These two women (who perhaps would be “frenemies” today) are like two sides of a coin; they have to rely on each other. In McDaniel’s pivotal scene (after the sudden death of Bonnie), Mammy cries and gently pleads: “If you can’t help us, who can? Mr. Rhett always set great store by your opinion. Please, Miss Melly.” Gable was reluctant to cry (in his following scene), but de Havilland convinced him that it would be the right thing to do for his character.

Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”)

WARNING: This post is dark and full of spoilers.

Let’s face it, Jon and Dany are one of the MOST boring couples in GoT (at least on the TV show; I haven’t read the books). There is no chemistry between the actors, thought I heard they were close friends in real life. One of my fave pairs (NOT a typically romantic couple) are Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwedolyn Christie); they get some meaty scenes in this ep- YAY! Jaime has to face Dany, Jon, and Sansa after riding into Winterfell; of course, Cersei has NOT sent her army. As MANY critics (and dedicated viewers) have commented, Jaime and Cersei are “officially broken up” after being emotionally (and ethically) distanced from each other for quite some time. Jaime is NOT apologetic in front of his (would be) allies, so Brienne (in a rare move), walks over to his side and offers her support. I think Sansa, who trusts Brienne w/ her life, is quite moved by her words and Jaime’s little trial ends.

Later in the ep, in the fireside chat scene, several characters chat, share jokes, and Pod sings (VERY well). Tormund has some funny lines here; I’m slowly beginning to like his character. He also comments that it’s stupid that woman can’t be knights in this society; he has a big crush on Brienne, we know from a few previous eps. Jaime decides to forget tradition in the case of Brienne, since ANY knight can make another knight. Of all the knights (men) in this show, Brienne is the MOST honorable. The big and unguarded smile (rare for this show) after the brief ceremony on Brienne’s face is SO wonderful!

The moment was also an acknowledgment of the ludicrousness of the chivalric traditions of Westeros, which had elevated him to godlike status while largely ignoring or marginalizing her. Jaime, even in his diminished state, is a legend walking into the halls of Winterfell… In knighting Brienne, he not only acknowledged his obvious love for her, but also nodded at a potentially bright future if everyone can make it through this darkest night. -David Sims (Vulture)

MANY people were surprised (OK, some were shocked) by Arya and Gendry’s love scene! Sure, we watched Maisie Williams grow up on this show, BUT she’s now 22 y.o. (her costar Joe Dempsie is 32 y.o.) It wasn’t THAT unexpected (IMO); they have a history, are close friends, and are both getting prepped for the biggest battle of their lives. When they were on the road MANY seasons ago, Arya said: “I could be your family.” He commented: “You wouldn’t be my family. You’d be milady” (assuming that he would serve the Starks). Now, he knows he’s the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, and a valuable player in this battle. Gendry created MANY daggers out of dragonglass, a new weapon for The Hound, and (eventually) a new spear for Arya. They had some cute/awkward moments where you saw their chemistry. Let these young people be happy before they face death!

From where Arya’s standing, she’s an older teenager whose formative years have been spent balanced on the knife’s edge of survival. Her entire purpose has been to avenge her family’s deaths; she knows death intimately, and she is more than capable of caring for herself. But Arya has had no time to behave like a teenager. -Kathryn VanArendonk (Vulture)

Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 1 (“Winterfell”)

WARNING: This post is dark and full of spoilers!

1.Winterfell is yours, Your Grace. -Sansa says to Daenerys

Sansa is cold (& unimpressed) by Dany and her crew, incl. the 2 dragons. As the Lady of Winterfell, she’s worried about the management of her household (incl. these new allies). Of course, we know that the Starks and Targayens have a difficult history- Aerys (The Mad King) killed Brandon (Ned’s older brother) and their father more than 20 yrs ago. Did you notice the little moment between Grey Worm and Missendei? They shared a look as the common people of the North stared coldly at them; these are probably the first POC they’ve ever seen. Been there, honey!

2. We don’t have time for this! -Bran to all (re: niceties) 

This moment was funny, yet also very real! As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran knows what’s up (as well as what has been). Even when Jon kissed Bran’s forehead upon arrival to Winterfell (call-back to S1 again), Bran showed no emotion. He ain’t got time for that!

3. I’m standing up for our family. -Arya to Jon (when he’s surprised by her standing up for Sansa)

This was a fine (& touching) moment; Arya and Jon hugged and compared swords. They last saw each other in S1 (when he gave her Needle, her little sword). Jon and Arya both felt like outsiders in the Stark family; they were very close as kids. Arya and Sansa now have a mutual respect for each other (unlike in S1); recall the moment in S7 E7 when they talk re: supporting each other (as Ned taught them growing up).

4. You want a whore, buy one. You want a queen, earn her. -Cersei declares to Euron (when he asks for some affection)

I know this will probably be the most popular line of the ep! However, Cersei (now queen) does get together w/ Euron in the next scene; I was expecting her to keep him at a distance. Now that Jaime is gone (to fight w/ the Northerners), perhaps she is a bit lonely. Or this is her way of thanking him for bringing The Golden Company to Kings Landing.

5. Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of the truth. Nothing lasts. -Varys explains to Tyrion & Davos

This was a nice little scene where the three men talk matchmaking (rather unexpected, but I liked it). They all think that Jon and Dany would make “a handsome couple” and also “just” and “honorable” rulers. Awww, why cant I find anyone to fix me up?

6. You’ve completely ruined horses for me! -Jon to Dany (after riding the dragon)

I liked this (funny) line after the (cool) dragon riding scene. These actors have “playful chemistry” (as Joanna Robinson commented on A Cast of Kings podcast). The dialogue was rather cheesy though- yikes! It reminded some viewers of A Whole New World (Aladdin); others were missing Ygritte (Jon’s first love).

7. As you wish, m’lady. -Gendry says to Arya (when she tells him not to call her Lady Stark).

Arya and Gendry are older now, so they’re a bit awkward around each other, yet still cute. These two actors have great chemistry- hope there is more to their story! Arya presents him w/ a drawing of a weapon she has designed; Gendry can forge it from dragonglass. Joanna Robinson really liked this part of their “courtship.”

8. I’m waiting for an old friend. -Bran tells Sam (the night before Jaime arrives at Winterfell)

In the last scene, we realize that the “old friend” is Jaime (who pushed Bran out of the tower in S1 E1)! This time, Jamie is dressed in dark, simple clothes, and under his black hood has short/dark hair. When he was last in Winterfell, he was wearing the ornate gold armor of the Kingsguard w/ blonde hair.

9. You’ve never been a bastard. You’re the true heir to the Iron Throne. -Sam explains to Jon 

Finally, Jon learns the truth of his parentage (thanks to the book Sam read, as well as Bran’s knowledge)! Jon didn’t believe it at first, b/c Ned was the kind of man who never lied. He has more of a claim to the throne than Dany (who is his aunt). Sam is no fan of Dany (after learning about what she did to his father and younger brother, Dickon); he thinks Jon will be a better ruler. Who hasn’t has a pal who didn’t like their significant other?

10. I’ve always had blue eyes! -Tormund yells at Ed & Rangers (running into them in the dark).

This is a funny moment before the creepy scene (w/ the young Lord Umber at the Last Hearth). Recall (also creepy little girl) in S1 E1; she scared the Night’s Watch guys who ran into her in the woods. One of these men escaped alive, but was executed by Ned.

Birds of Passage (2018): Shortlisted for Academy Award – Best Foreign Language Film

It’s set in a community that doesn’t belong to you, but it speaks about us. This is a family film… We talk about the conflicts between the traditional community and modernity. We also talk about the conflicts between women and men, and the real and the spiritual world, and this is something that touched us in a very deep way. -Cristina Gallego, co-director/co-writer

We wanted to make a genre film, but this gave us the opportunity to put a twist on the genre film- a genre like the gangster film or noir film… which has developed into the glorification of criminals, a celebration of violence. -Cirro Guerra, co-director/co-writer

Few films have captured quite so powerfully the tension between the old and new worlds — a feat “Birds of Passage” accomplishes while simultaneously allowing audiences to channel the Wayuu’s surrealistic view of their surroundings, where spirits walk the earth, and wise women interpret their dreams. -Peter Debrige (Variety)

What first comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Aside from the actors and beauty pageant winners turned models, I bet it’s the drug trade! This movie, set between 1968 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula. Spanish is also spoken, as well as bits of English. The filmmakers are a young (under 40 y.o.) formerly married pair from Colombia, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra. They worked with a team of about 80, incl. 30% of Wayuu actors, non-actors, and crew.

We are first introduced to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a beautiful young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan (which is a matrilineal society). When Zaida leaves her traditional one-year seclusion and is ready for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet (Jose Acosta). He’s a confident young man who has been working among the alijunas (outsiders, incl. those who speak Spanish and are non-indigenous) and comes from a less prominent family. He was raised by his highly respected uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente), a “word messenger.” In this society, it is forbidden to cause harm to a messenger. Rapayet and Zaida do a fast-paced mating dance; he declares: “You are my woman” at the end. We suppose that he could be thinking of family prestige and also genuine attraction.

Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Zaida’s formidable mother, explains that Zaida’s hand will only be available w/ a large dowry (incl. cattle, goats, and 5 necklaces). Ursula looks down on Rapayet, thinking he can’t come up with it. Rapayet sees the chance to get the dowry fast by selling marijuana to a drug-dealing American, Bill (who may or may not be connected to the Peace Corps). Rapayet’s business partner/best friend is a jovial, hard-partying Afro-Latin man, Moises; previously, they smuggled alcohol and cigarettes only. It turns out that (high in the hills) is a big crop of marijuana; the land is owned by a cousin of Rapayet’s, Anibal. When he sees just how much money can be made from the gringos, he’s up for the (dangerous) business.

[1] The landscapes of the film are stunning, and I particularly appreciated the cinematography. But perhaps my favourite thing about the film was it’s heavy use of spirituality and what I can only describe as “magical realism” transposed into film. I thought it was brilliantly done.

[2] It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but “Birds of Passage” very intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own sinful way, as any other group.

[3] It is gripping and intense and handles its subject material in the best of ways. It is obvious that the creator of the film did everything he could so that the movie feels realistic and interesting to the viewer. Its beautiful and colorful visuals, the exceptional sound design and the strong and immersive soundtrack made you feel as a part of a whole and the film never felt boring or cliche. It is masterfully crafted and really well-paced.

-Excerpts from IMDB comments