Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Image result for mutiny on the bounty

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.

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

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