Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

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I live in a city with quite a nautical history.  I’ve seen the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” in the Charlestown Navy Yard (spoiler alert:  not actually made of iron).  Every once in a while, there’s some interesting ship that comes into Boston Harbor, and I’ve toured a couple of them.  That includes a nineteenth century whaleship – so I’m somewhat familiar with the kind of wooden ship in the era the Bounty comes from.  They are teeny tiny boats for a few dozen dudes to ride around in for two years.

Based on how commonly-referenced the story of the mutiny is, I’d have guessed that I would have a better sense of what happened and why.  But I genuinely knew next to nothing about it, and it’s a really interesting story.  More fascinating, I’d say, than is given justice in the film.

The year is 1787, and Captain Bligh is assigned to set out on a trade mission to Tahiti on the British naval ship the Bounty.  As was apparently common practice for the navy at that time, sailors were conscripted from local pubs to fulfill a two-year mission overseas, which probably explains why so many of the reluctant seamen were so eager to volunteer for a mutiny later. Bligh does not treat his crew well, punishing them willy-nilly with floggings and half-rations and grumpy scowls.

They land on Tahiti, and obviously all the native women fall in love with the white guys, and the white guys explain civilization to them in condescending ways.  (As a side note, I would love to know if there exists narratives from the perspective of indigenous peoples during this time period of European exploration/exploitation, because it seems pretty hard to come by.)  Shortly after they leave, Bligh’s second in command decides he’s had enough and leads a mutiny.

In some way, we see the mutineers as heroic, or at least justified in what they did.  Particularly in the movie’s portrayal, Captain Bligh is a terrible guy who punishes his men in severe ways for minor transgressions.  When he’s set adrift in (an even tinier!) boat with some of his loyal men, basically left for dead, you kind of feel he deserves it.  I mean, let’s just start with the fact that the entire trip was initiated to obtain breadfruit plants to transport to the Caribbean “as a cheap food source for slaves.”  I’m not gonna cry if that little expedition misses its mark.

At this point, the film seems to get itself mixed up with Moby Dick, because Bligh comes back on an even bigger ship, searching for the escaped mutineers, who returned to Tahiti.  There’s a high-speed boat chase (not really), and Bligh’s obsession with capturing his crew leads to the destruction of yet another ship.  In actuality, this part did not happen exactly like that in real life Bligh made it home alive, but didn’t chase after the Bounty – though the mutineers did end up on Pitcairn Island.

As a side note, on the DVD, there was a bonus “documentary” about Pitcairn Island today, made in the 1930s, which was interesting/hilarious as a historical document.  The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives/kidnapped women? still eke out a living there.

And that’s the film, too – interesting as a historical document, impressive for its time in its special effects (the special-est effect being water, which to be fair would probably be added as CGI today).  Ultimately, though, I’d rather read a book that went into more detail about the nuances and realities of the situation.  And what role did those Tahitians play in the whole shebang?  Movie, why you gotta leave me hanging?

 

Theme:  On a Boat

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Saying, unironically, “we’re all in the same boat.”  Twice.

Cavalcade (1932/1933)

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I had to look up the word “cavalcade,” after spending the past eleven months wondering what the story was with this movie.  A cavalcade is a procession of people on horseback (or, in its presumably more recent usage, in vehicles).  Which makes sense in relationship with that other horsey word, cavalry.  It also clarifies the recurring shots of horses trotting along while the year flashes across the screen, though in this case the horse reference is more metaphorical.  Here, the years gallop past, and good luck keeping up.

The story focuses on two families – the wealthy Marryots, who live in a fancy London building, and their servants, the Bridges.  It opens on the turn of the century (that is, 1899), on the verge of the Boer War, which drives both upper and lower class men to enlist.  Over the course of the next two hours, their lives are seen through the lens of major world events:  Queen Victoria’s death, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I… well, that’s about it, really.

There’s a sense of grandiosity about this parade through history, in that way that is apparently inscribed in the Official Rulebook of Historical Reenactments.  Everybody talks about events in direct and ironic opposition to their reality, so we get people casually dismissing this big war as one that’ll last three months – six, tops.  Or the romantic couple that discusses their future aboard ship on their honeymoon, only to step away, revealing the name on the life preserver (spoiler alert:  it’s not the Queen Mary.  And side note, who would take a ship across the ocean for their honeymoon?).  Instead of personalizing the epic, this kind of stunt only seems to trivialize the lives of people who actually experienced world-altering events.

It’s hard not to think we’re living in high-stakes times at the present, which adds a sort of weight to looking back.  One thing that oddly stands out, though, is how quickly we forget what came before us.  I don’t know what the Boer War was about, for example.  I suppose it involved the Dutch, and the big battle they kept referring to at Mafeking seemed significant.  At the time of the film’s release, I’m sure its history was more present and relevant, but since then, we’ve had two world wars and several other significant national conflicts to push it back into the fog of history.  Today, we as a nation can’t even seem to see the errors of Nazi Germany, let alone the disputes from twice as long before that.  I don’t know if I should find that thought reassuring or terrifying.

The film concludes pretty much where it began, in the Marryot’s living room (convenient for the set designers) as they toast another new year, 1933, the very same year the film was released.  Nearly everyone else they knew had died, and they’re pretty old, but since they were the rich ones, they still have a lot to celebrate.  Their swanky mid-London castle, for example, probably hasn’t lost value even in the middle of the Depression.

Out of nowhere, there’s a bizarre cacophony of final images, nameless figures warning of the rise of communism and the loss of faith.  You could imagine a similar kind of punditry today, which suggests that this progress hasn’t harmed us too much overall, though nor has it improved our lives beyond reckoning.  Time marches on, whether on horseback or ocean liner, or in a tank, and we have only to look around us to watch the enormity of history claim us.

 

Theme:  Rotten

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Seasick, hideously

 

Cimarron (1930/1931)

 

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There is no scene in this movie with a ripped shirt.

What is it that makes a Western a Western?  Is it purely matter of a location – that is, a movie that takes place somewhere in the Western United States?  Or in a particular era, in that nebulous time of the “wild west,” when Europeans spread westward over indigenous lands, claiming the “unspoiled territory” as their own?  The time of pre-state lawlessness and exciting gunfights, which are the sorts of things that make good stories on film.

Surprisingly, in the decade or two that I most associate with the Western film genre (1950s-60s, let’s say), there were no Oscar winners for Best Western.  Wait, that’s a hotel chain.  Granted, most of the Westerns I’ve seen fall into the realm of today’s superhero flicks – maybe an entertaining way to spend an evening, but probably not something that’s going to stick with you.  This week, I’m going to look at the films that bookend the Western movie era.

Cimarron starts at a moment of literal Manifest Destiny, in the first great land grab of Oklahoma in 1890.  The U.S. has apparently decided that the various Indian tribes they shunted off to a barren land aren’t making good enough use of the territory, and there’s all these white people who’ve worn out their welcome back east.  So we join Yancy and his new wife, Sabra, as they start out on a new life in the boom town of Osage.  Eventually, the film takes us through decades of their life (together, and not) amid the changing times of Oklahoma, from territory to statehood.  It’s like Gone with the Wind, except that nobody remembers this movie.

If you’re interested in playing a fun/cringey game when watching old movies, you might try “Count the Stereotypes.”  We have a loyal black servant boy (and a watermelon joke, in case that wasn’t enough for you) who I desperately hoped would strike out on his own once they reached the wilderness, but instead met a bleaker fate.  And you’d be lucky to find a Native American with a voice, despite the film’s (and Yancy’s) supposed “Indian-lover” sympathies.  Trump would probably appreciate the short-lived Mexican character’s representation.  It’s possible the minority that comes out the best is the Jewish guy – and I was totally shipping him with Sabra later in the film, after Yancy flakes off somewhere for an unexplained five or twenty years.

I wish the movie had put a bit more effort into exploring Sabra.  As wife to the adventurous Yancy, she initially likes the idea of setting off for new territory, but gets quickly overwhelmed.  Finally, though, she takes over Yancy’s abandoned business in his absence, and ends up a member of Congress by the film’s end, in the late 1920s.  You might wonder how all that happened, but you would again be disappointed, because the director found it more imperative to show us where Yancy ended up after twenty years (but didn’t deign to explain why the hell he was such a flake).  Women are great and all, but really, wouldn’t you rather watch a dude die horribly?  Well, come to think of it…

What does Cimarron refer to, you might ask?  You’ll be disappointed to know that Yancy’s son, a minor character at best, is named Cimarron, perhaps in honor of his father who may or may not have used the name at some point.  But otherwise, it’s a complete mystery!  Maybe read the book if you want some kind of answers.  I certainly don’t care enough to find out, though, so let me know what you discover!

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Smiling as a basket of chips

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

It’s August, which means it’s time for another theme month.  This time, I’m going to look at mental health through the decades.  I work in the mental health field – tangentially, at least – so I feel like I know just enough to make random declarations about the subject, though not necessarily enough to discuss real issues.

I’ll also mention here that I actually watched this movie months ago, and wrote this post back then with the intention of pairing it with something else that never panned out.  I do, however, think it’s worthwhile including it here because most people would consider that a group of people who are not all related living together in a house, not making any money, doing whatever random creative thing comes to mind to be crazy.  There.  I said it.

Ah, the screwball comedy.  They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Actually, I’m not sure they make movies like this at all anymore.  Comedies?  Sure.  Romantic comedies?  Obvs.  Eccentric characters?  Well, yes.  Zany, seemingly unrelated plot points that somehow all fit together at the end?  All right, all right.  Even still, today’s comedies don’t seem remotely similar to the screwball comedies of the past (based on my limited experience).

Maybe it’s just a generational thing.  I can’t help but note that this movie came out in the midst of the Great Depression.  The plot is simple yet complicated – two people fall in love and try to reconcile their wildly different families, one made of wealthy business owners always after a deal, and the other a group of eccentrics who’ve decided to focus on their own artistic passions.  The winning message is to follow your heart instead of a dollar sign.  Easy for you to say, Grandpa.  I got rent to pay.  And student loans.

I’ve come to realize that I resist stories like this, that seem realistic on the surface but also feature characters like Mr. Poppins (which, first of all, nobody’s actually named Mr. Poppins), who abandons his job on a whim to carry out his lifelong dream of making stuffed rabbits.  Or the stately Russian ballet instructor who hangs out with all the other weird people who in turn are hanging out doing random things and somehow also make enough money to live off of.  I prefer my realism to be genuinely realistic and fully separated from my fantasy stories about time travel and magic and mutated amphibians trained in martial arts.  What good is entertainment, after all, if it can’t be neatly categorized and either exactly like life or nothing like it?

I wish YCTIWY offered more of a middle ground – their solution seems to be that you can only be happy if you reject the trappings of finance and indulge in a life of whimsical pursuits.  Art is a great, important thing, but we also need some structure.  Grandpa wonders what paying income tax does for him (not as footloose and ignorant of money as he thinks, then, eh?) while promoting the neighborhood community spirit.  And somehow, he owns a house in an extremely popular location without much explanation as to how it fell into his unemployed hands.

I remember reading the play on which this film is based back in high school, maybe 9th or 10th grade English.  I don’t recall the specifics of it – though the most important bit is pretty much in the title.  But it does bring back my sense of frustration at our exposure to theater in school.  This was one of the most modern plays we read, except perhaps The Glass Menagerie.  Most of my memories of those plays were sheer confusion.  There were references to contemporary things that I didn’t understand (who the hell were Porgy and Bess, and how is it pronounced? one might wonder when asked to read such a thing aloud).  Somehow, I got it into my head that drama ceased to exist after 1950.  Theater felt like some relic from the past that nobody did anymore.

I hope that’s not the case for kids learning about drama today.  If the only choices are Shakespeare or Kaufman and Hart, no wonder young people find it hard to relate to theater.  Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with them, but it’d be nice to see something a little more approachable.  The kids these days should be watching HamiltonI should be watching Hamilton.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Zaniness?

First Time Watching?  Maybe, but not first time reading the play.

Final Verdict:  Life is running around inside of me like a squirrel.

It Happened One Night (1934)

 

Without knowing anything about the film except its title, I probably would have placed this in the genre of those 50’s science fiction-y flicks with the Claymation monsters.  You know, the sort that would be parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or something.  It Came From Outer SpaceIt’s AliveIt Happened One Night.

I mean, what is “It,” anyway?  (It’s it.)  How do I interpret this vaguest of pronouns in any way other than a hook-handed man scratching at the side of the bus that Ellie and Peter are riding… TO THEIR DEATH!  The only other alternative is that “It” refers to sexytimes, although nighttime is the traditional time for It to happen.  They’d probably be happier in the long term if It Happened more than One Night.  In fairness, though, they seem to have found a way to keep things kinky in the bedroom with their use of ropes and trumpets.

To briefly summarize, this film is not about an unearthly creature who creeps into a placid seaside town and eats everybody.  It’s actually about a couple that fall in love.  Ellie is the daughter of a ridiculously rich guy (who at one point offers someone $100,000 as a throwaway reward, and this is in the middle of the Depression).  She’s married some guy she just met and jumps off a yacht to run away and join him forever.  Meanwhile, another guy, Peter, is a journalist who’s looking for a big scoop, and apparently journalism was slightly classier back then than it is today, because he thinks it’s a good idea to write about how he fell in love with this missing society girl.

I don’t know if this is the first film that falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but even if not the very first, it’s interesting to see the origins of what’s become pretty much cliché these days.  The man and woman who have a mostly antagonistic relationship and suddenly realize that the chafing feeling is actually love.  There’s usually another man (not often another woman, oddly) who initially seems a good fit but eventually turns out to have some fatal flaw.  And of course, there are the moments where the lady and man-friend are forced into some uncomfortable intimacy before they’re ready for it.  Pick any romantic comedy you’ve seen, and I’m sure you’d find one of these tropes.

I’ve never seen a romance set on a Greyhound bus, though.  I’ve ridden a fair number of buses in my day, and I don’t recall ever meeting anyone remotely sexy.  Also, I spent the first half of the film really stressing out about the bus.  What was it like riding a bus in the 30s?  Did they even have a highway system back then?  I thought the interstate highways were set up in the 1950s.  How long of a trip was that from Miami to New York?  Were there even any bathrooms on the bus, and how the hell did that work?  If that part in the back where Ellie and Peter sat was right next to the bathroom, wouldn’t it have smelled so disgustingly that neither of them could have even fallen asleep, let alone in love?

Finally, I’ve heard that song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” all my life, and never knew where it came from.  It doesn’t seem to have originated in this movie, but I’m sure that’s what has kept it popular enough in the modern age for me to have heard it, even without ever having seen the movie before.  Strange the way certain things manage to last.

 

Theme:  Classic Romantic Comedy

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  And the walls came tumbling down

Grand Hotel (1931/1932)

 

Several years ago, I stumbled on the movie The Impostors, which features a large cast of characters on board a cruise ship playing out their respective dramas.  It’s a witty film, filled with zany hijinks and snappy dialogue.  Though they’re not the biggest stars, the cast is widely recognizable (Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi), an ensemble story that seems directly inspired by a film like Grand Hotel.

This movie was a sort of experiment in something that is pretty much commonplace today:  the bigger-than-life film packed with all the greatest stars of the day.  It’s like an Avengers movie, only with better character names.  The Baron.  Grusinskaya.  Kringelein.  And they’re played by John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford.  Even I’ve heard of these people.

The thing with ensemble stories is you have to land on a particular individual’s narrative in a quick, easy-to-remember way, and even though I already forget a lot of the specifics of each thread, I think it was done well.  Once I got past my usual trouble of recognizing whether there were, in fact, two characters that looked similar and had mustaches (answer:  one guy), I enjoyed this.  There’s a depressed dancer, a man living it up at the fancy hotel because he’s dying, a factory owner plotting a big deal, a jewel thief and man-about-town, a stenographer (slash-evening escort? unclear), a doctor with a mysterious wound, a porter expecting a baby (from him wife, not himself).  And somehow, by the end, these threads all end up interlocking.

“The Grand Hotel:  People coming, going.  Nothing ever happens,” someone intones at the beginning of the film, as a sort of existential portent.  It’s not so much that nothing happens, but that the hotel is a sort of all-seeing but apathetic party to the action.  When people leave their rooms, even after living there for years, the hotel absorbs whatever character that person might have brought to it and readies a generic space for the next resident.  Hotel as heartless God.

One little thing that amused me, particularly in the historical context, was the silliness of the drunk guy.  In the midst of Prohibition, I can imagine that watching the (over)consumption of alcohol on film might have been entertainingly scandalous, sort of the way marijuana use has been portrayed in movies from, say, the nineties.  There’s also a touching moment where the drunk man – who’s been freely spending and gambling away his money – panics about losing his wallet full of cash.  Meanwhile, the jewel thief, desperate for the cash to catch a train the next day, has tucked the wallet away in his pocket.  For a long moment, it’s uncertain whether he’ll run off with the dough or have a change of heart, and it’s notable by that point that you really care what his answer will be.

I wonder if a movie like this could be done successfully today – a story about a contained universe full of characters who start out as strangers but quickly grow intimately familiar.

 

Theme:  Crossing Paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  A short life, and a gay one

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/1930)

April is the cruelest month, and war is cruel, so I thought:  what better than to focus on war movies throughout the month of April?  I’ve selected one film from each decade to watch and comment on this month, in hopes of gaining perspective on how war is depicted differently through the years, and in the context of world events (which is to say, the wars of the real world).

First up is the classic anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front.  If you’re like me, you probably had to read this book, written by Erich Maria Remarque, in school.  I still remember the hard brown cover, that newsprint smell of books ordered in bulk by the school for English.  While so many others in my classes hated forced reading, I just loved getting those sturdy books, even if I didn’t care much about the contents.  I decided to re-read the book at the same time as viewing the movie (not quite literally, though I watched and read each in interlocking sections).

I’m glad I revisited the novel, if only to see what I recalled.  The rats and lice stood out to me, then and now.  The scene in which Paul is trapped in a pit with the Frenchman as he slowly bleeds to death also stand out as a key moment, both in its significance and ultimately meaninglessness.  However, I definitely did not remember the scene where Paul and his fellow soldiers trade food for sex with a trio of French women.  I was apparently a bit naïve, which is notable in itself that I was more inured to the realities of war than to sex.

Near the beginning of the film, a teacher quotes the Latin line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which may be familiar now to readers of the World War I poet Wilfred Owen.  Since that scene doesn’t appear in Remarque’s novel, I can only imagine that the filmmaker wanted us to recall that poem, about a soldier trudging back from the front line and into a gas attack.  On either side of the war, soldiers do little more than suffer and die without reason.

I’m a little disappointed that the film version loses much of the interiority of the novel – it’s difficult to translate thoughts onto the screen, though some of Paul’s narrative is converted to dialogue.  However, one thing that the film accomplishes very well is depicting the sounds and scenes of battle without commentary or over-dramatizing.  There’s a scene in the middle showing a bombardment and attack, and it’s mostly silent but for the numbing onslaught of artillery.  It really demonstrates how film can bring a scene to life, much differently than the CGI-filled movies of today.

There aren’t many films in popular culture that focus on World War I.  So much has been written about the struggles and glory of World War II, and maybe that’s simply because it came in conjunction with the rise in popularity of movies and television.  Or maybe we look back on the First World War as an unsuccessful first round, where we Americans didn’t quite manage to knock out the bad guys for good.  Or, on the other hand, maybe Americans don’t see it as our war – we had less invested in it, and its survivors are now long gone.

What’s most striking to me is that film and book seems to be so popular with an American audience not in spite of its being about the German army, but because of it.  There weren’t many who dared to criticize war, particularly on the side of the victors, and those few who did suffered for their efforts.  In high school, I also read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, mostly thanks to Metallica, but it was definitely not school reading.  Trumbo was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, but somehow did manage to bring the novel to film in 1971.

The lesson already seems obvious:  War is cruel, yes, but only if you’re on the losing side.  Otherwise, it’s worth every sacrifice.

 

Theme:  War

Which War:  World War I

First Time Watching?  It’s quite possible I saw some of this in high school.

Final Verdict:  Nothing to report in the West

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld holds the distinction as the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which might surprise you, if, like me, you’d never heard of the man. Florenz Ziegfeld, the great showman of the early 20th century, who brought his Ziegfeld Follies to Broadway. Vaudeville! Ladies dancing! Blackface! …oh. Um, awkward.

This movie seems to come from an era in movie history when filmmakers were still trying to figure out what made a movie a unique form of entertainment. Like some of the other pictures I’ve seen during this project, this seems to be less a film in the way I think of it now and more of a set piece for a different kind of entertainment, namely, the on-stage Follies that made Ziegfeld famous.

What starts out as a relatively straightforward biographical film about a guy running a Strong Man sideshow quickly detours down a creepy path, when Ziegfeld playfully discusses his “engagement” with a 6 year old girl. Even in jest, it reads as questionable considering Ziegfeld’s already shown himself to be a ladies’ man, and it certainly doesn’t improve when the little girl shows up again some fifteen years later to throw herself at the now-successful Ziegfeld (who, I don’t need to point out, is now fifteen years older than his previous self as well.)

But all that personal backstory is really just a framing for the true point of the film: the recreated stage performances. The first big number is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” (which I only knew of in parody form as the Magnetic Fields’ “A Pretty Girl is Like…”). It’s an impressive performance, with this giant rotating set of steps filled with dancers and curtains, and I find it really difficult to describe. As a neat side note, it was filmed in one long shot (with a cut for a close-up). Curiously, even though I could appreciate the technical precision of such a segment, I wasn’t really moved by it emotionally. I can imagine that seeing it on an actual stage would be different, but all this film proves to me is that you can’t expect the same effect when you try to transfer something from one form to another. Something gets lost in the process.

It’s strange how quickly celebrity fades. This is sort of a theme in the film, though not entirely in the way I read it today. Ziegfeld lost big in the stock market crash (I find that in the movies of the 1930s, the stock market crash is viewed with the same sense of Nothing Was Ever the Same Again that our generation has with 9/11), and he couldn’t manage to pull another show together out of sheer hubris the way he’d done in years past. He died in 1932, just a few years before the movie was released. His wife at the time was deeply involved in production, probably hoping that his star would last forever. But now? He’s just another name soon to be lost to time.

 

Theme: Showmanship

First Time Watching? Most def

Final Verdict:  As an American girl, I certainly felt glorified.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

 

You know, the tough part about pairing movies that I’ve never seen for this blog project is that films that seem thematically linked might end up being nothing alike. Based on their summaries, I’d decided to look at Amadeus and The Life of Emile Zola together. Both are biopics about artists (one a writer, another a master of music) – it appeared straightforward. Now that I’ve seen them, though, I realize they’re wildly different.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about these films, both as separate entities and in conversation with each other (though I’m the puppeteer holding them up face to face). Each is representative of its era, of the style of film of its day, and as a result, each film varies in which elements are most prominent or meaningful. At the same time, though, both do revolve in some way around the idea of the relationship between artists, and how the competition or inspiration of friends can bring out the best or worst in us.

A couple of early scenes feature Paul Cezanne, painter and one-time roommate of Zola’s, who argues in favor of the starving artist stereotype. Once Zola finds success selling his books, Cezanne figures he’s grown complacent, no longer willing to fight The Man for his principles. Zola is your typical hippie-cum-yuppie.

I’ll be honest: I had only the vaguest sense of who Emile Zola was before watching this movie. And by that I mean that the best I could do was identify him as a writer. From France. He lived and wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century, which led me to the realization that I have only a vague sense of European history around that time. France was fighting off skirmishes with Prussia/Germany. France was… a republic? Haven’t cleared all this up yet.

The truth is, we don’t see a lot of France through the years, because The Life of Emile Zola, contrary to its title, focuses primarily on a big controversy in the latter part of his life, the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus was an army captain falsely convicted of treason and exiled to a prison on a Caribbean island (which doesn’t sound that bad). Meanwhile, the real traitor – a spy who shared military documents with Germany – is later discovered but exonerated in a vast cover-up. Zola gets involved in a last-ditch attempt to publicize the conspiracy in the interest of truth and justice, and is put on trial for his troubles. I’m a little fuzzy on the whys and wherefores, to be honest.

You see, as I discovered in my own research later (okay, Wikipedia research), the film conveniently leaves out the fact that Dreyfus was pegged for the crime largely because he was Jewish. However, that fact was deliberately removed from the movie, supposedly because the producers wanted the film to perform well in Nazi Germany. There’s a strange bit of irony in that, especially considering the way Zola champions truth and justice.

What was striking about this film, particularly in contrast with Amadeus, is that focus is much more on the philosophical rather than the emotional impact. Zola is more of an image than a human, spouting off impassioned speeches. There’s barely a sense of who he is as a person, or what motivates the characters. Honestly, Dreyfus is the emotional heart of the movie, and we hardly see him. It’s an odd sort of biopic.

Is one of these dudes-with-a-mustache a traitor to France?  My guess is it’s that one.

 

Theme: Artistic friendship

First time watching? Yes

Final Verdict: J’Accuse … snooze?

Gone with the Wind (1939)

I swear this moment never happened in the film 

So, this is one of those classic films that you think you know because you’ve seen so many parodies and heard catchphrases (“Fiddle-dee-dee!” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”), but when you actually sit down and watch all four hours of it, you realize that you never had a clue what it was about. But the weirdest thing about it? The whole movie is this nostalgic paean to the Old South, i.e., antebellum South. Which is to say it’s about the good ol’ days of slavery.

Not that they say this in so many words, of course. Sure, there are a number of black characters – more than I might have expected, to be honest. The fact of their being slaves is practically ignored. Those that we see in greater detail, like Mammy, are portrayed as loyal to the O’Hara family, before and after the war. It’s entirely unclear how or whether they made the transition from “house servant” to “paid staff,” but then, there’s certainly not time enough in this epic to answer a little question like that.

Granted, I viewed this in the context of having recently watched 12 Years a Slave, so I was highly skeptical of the general attitude of Gone’s characters, who seem convinced that they treated their slaves fairly. There’s even an awkward moment where somebody objects to employing white convicts because they’re treated worse than they’d treated slaves before the war. Huh?

Slavery aside, this movie is all about Scarlett and Rhett. Romance of the century, right? At least, that’s what I thought. If this is a romantic movie, it’s the most depressing one I’ve ever seen. Rhett’s kind of a terrible person, which maybe isn’t as bad as it sounds since Scarlett is about as bad. Never once do they seem more than vaguely fond of each other, usually alternating between apathy or hatred or boredom. Maybe you can’t expect much when they met at a barbecue unlike any I’ve ever been to. Not a damn rib in sight.

Even as Scarlett was often unlikeable, she did hold her own in a male-dominated world, which is kind of admirable for a movie from 1939. She navigated a post-slavery economy with skill, starting her own lumber business and rebuilding that enormous staircase (though they had to cut corners when it came to safety railing). But still, Dorothy Gale she is not.

I don’t know if this is an artifact of the era, but this movie ended up like a friggin’ Shakespearean tragedy what with the death count – and I’m talking about after the war. For a movie this long, I wish they could have come up with a better setup besides this:

“Oh, I hope [something bad] doesn’t happen.”

*Everybody stands around and waits*

[Something bad] happens.

I’d feared before I started this project that I would quickly grow to regret the hours lost to movies I wasn’t sure I’d wanted to see. This is just the type of movie I was thinking of.

 

Theme: Plantation

First time watching? Yes

Loved It/Liked It/Hated It – Don’t Give a Damn