Posts Tagged ‘MGM’

Directed by Erich von Stroheim Foolish Wives is a silent film also written by him.

The silent drama is set in and around Monaco where Villa Amorosa is leased out for the season. The three Russians who occupy the villa are frauds and they are there to make a killing and move on before the season ends. Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) is a cad of the deepest hue whose forte is in compromising rich heiresses and milking them while his cousins run a private casino to bilk the unwary who are taken in by their pretensions to nobility. Naturally passing around counterfeit notes is part of their trade.
Of these three the role of Stroheim looms larger,- and he is almost in every scene, but his riveting performance as an actor and as an auteur make this film a great experience. The character that he assays here is typical of other roles he has handled, and indeed he is the man you love to hate. But what a character! Before we see him mixing with the high society and holding his own with cold aloofness of a Count we are given a clue to his baseness.

Von Stroheim shows a world that lies to itself, where swindlers and rich people mix, and where the heroine reads a book called Foolish Wives . The writer-director deals with false appearances: the titles of Count Wladislas Sergius Karamzin and his two princess cousins are fake (von Stroheim himself was not an Austrian aristocrat as he would have us believe during his lifetime, but the son of a Jewish hat-maker), the money is counterfeit, and the sentiments are fraudulent; Karamzin playing at love to seduce his maid, the ambassador’s wife, and an idiotic 14-year-old girl are all put on and fake, like impasto on the canvas of high society as the royal pretensions of Grimaldi might strike the House of Windsor or of Hohenzollern. This hypocrisy of the social game is set in the context of World War I, which had just ended: an armless veteran, a nurse pushing a soldier in a wheelchair, a little girl on crutches, a boy playing with a military helmet are all daubs that add to the overall effect.
As the film progresses depth of his villainy is indeed mind-boggling. He shall not spare even the servant maid’s life savings if he could lay hands on it and his comeuppance of course would come from that quarter, and before the film comes to an end we see of what his panache and sense of honor amount to in a critical moment.
The bulk of the film is taken up how the three cousins lay traps to compromise the honor of Helen Hughes (Miss Dupont) the young wife of the American envoy and its unraveling with unexpected consequences to the three.
Before release there were both censorship and length problems. In the wake of Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal the company decided to delete the most provocative shots; after screening a rough cut of six and half hours, it took the film from von Stroheim’s hands and asked Arthur Ripley to reduce it from 30 reels to 14. Ultimately it ran only ten reels.
The film began director von Stroheim’s reputation as a “manic perfectionist,” a huge money spender, and as a director that needed to be brought under control.
Started on 12 July 1920, the shooting ended almost one year later on 15 June 1921. The costs were soaring as von Stroheim insisted on the veracity of every detail. The main facades of the casino, the Hotel de France, and the Cafe de Paris were built by Richard Day (his first assignment) on the backlot of Universal. During filming, the costs for the film soared. While the budget was slated at $250,000, according to von Stroheim, it ended at $750,000. At the end, Universal Studio, estimated the costs at $1,225,000. During the production, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, appointed 20-year-old Irving Thalberg as head of the studio. Right away the new studio chief started clashing with von Stroheim, whom he considered a spendthrift.
Actor Rudolph Christians died on February 7, 1921 from pneumonia during production, and his part was taken over by Robert Edeson. Edeson only showed his back to the camera so as not to clash with shot footage of Christians that was still to be used in the completed film.
Original prints reportedly had hand coloring of certain scenes by artist Gustav Brock.

In Retro:

Even with all the difficulties the film is one of the most stunning of the silent era. It also exercised a major influence on future directors, including Renoir, Buñuel, and Vigo.

In Foolish Wives von Stroheim also gives the final—and most brilliant—touch to his portrait of the cynical seducer, equally eager for money and sex. His physical appearance is as recognizable as Chaplin’s, with his military cap, his whip, and his monocle.
Even as we look back at the silent era with rose-tinted glass and smile tolerantly at its naïveté, this film stands out as a shocker. Its originality and boldness ran against the grain of films that were to come out of the MGM studios several years later. I cite this studio because the boy genius, who headed the studio was to thwart the artistic independence Stroheim demanded and Stroheim had to pay the price for his artistic integrity.
“If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you “maître”. They do not forget. In Hollywood—in Hollywood, you’re as good as your last picture. If you didn’t have one in production within the last three months, you’re forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this.”
Stroheim’s unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.
He is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).

For the latter film, which co-starred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Excerpts from Queen Kelly were used in the film. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors. Stroheim’s character in Sunset Boulevard thus had an autobiographical basis that reflected the humiliations suffered through his career.
‘De Mille as early as 1919 brought to the American screens a mixture of spice and sex but within strict moral limits. Von Stroheim, however, through his unsparing vision of human psychology, his probing of hidden motives, and his harsh realism made the American cinema (particularly with Foolish Wives ) enter the 20th century, away from the Victorian and romantic sensibility of Griffith. Chaplin would soon follow with A Woman of Paris (1923) and Lubitsch with The Marriage Circle (1924). “Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you’ll know just what he is when you see him on his throne.”
Foolish Wives anticipates two subversive works that open and close the 1930s: Buñuel’s L’age d’or and Renoir’s La règle du jeu .
In 2008, Foolish Wives was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Ack:michel Ciment/film reference,wikipedia-foolish wives,Stroheim)

(also see cinebuff.wordpress.com)

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The Studio Years by Gerald Mast

(notes taken from the essay as titled above.b)

The System came up along the slow evolution of cinema as an art. In 1916 Adolph Zukor( Famous Players-Lasky company) assumed control over Paramount distributing company. In 1924 Marcus Loew set up MGM studio with Louis B.Mayer as head of Production. By 1925 the Warner Brothers Company,the Columbia Pictures Corporation,Universal Pictures and the Fox company had been set up.

Like the production of Ford motor cars out of Detroit the heads of the Production planned an entertainment factory from which a large number of goods(films) of consistent and dependent quality were to roll out without any snarl. Like any factory, guiding principle of a studio was division of labor, by which each department contributed to the whole. Writers, actors,technicians and mechanics were all part of it. Studio publicity was another that pitched the finished product to the public. Time saving devices were more welcome than inspiration a human quality that made writers or stars at time excel themselves from their usual. There was a front office that planned the year’s production,managed all the budgets and kept the assembly line smoothly running.

Introduction of sound system meant a bigger financial out lay that only big studios could afford. Conversely it made the studio more rigorous with their production costs. The informality of early silent films was gone and in the complicated technically savvy world of dream factory nothing was left to chance or human tantrums. The stars emoted come what may according to detailed shooting scripts that went dead against the intent of the author and script writers who still nursed certain literary integrity. Their principles and feelings had been bought by the studio when they signed the carefully worded contracts prepared by their lawyers. The studios had also battery of legal firms that helped them to control the production all along the line.

From 1930 to 1945 the Studio system reigned supreme.

When films found their feet among masses the need was to produce more while the demand was very strong. With the crash of 1929 and lives of men growing desperate, films as an escape from everyday circumstances were real. Those who produced them knew they had to account for every cent they spent. They knew the commercial need for large quantities could only be justified when these were of good quality and technically competent and also were entertaining. After the World War II the studio system died when television came into vogue. It brought entertainment right into homes of Everyman. There was no more need for such quantity as the studio system planned for a year.


The Hollywood Studio system was uneven. Take two giants as MGM and Paramount studios. In the former Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had much more control than the other . Paramount was a studio of directors and writers-Ernest Lubitsch, Joseph von Sternberg,Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder. This also had such names as WC Fields and Mae West. MGM was the studio of stars- Greta Garbo Jean Harlow Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. MGM inherited the Marx brothers and made their zany chaotic routine fit with their intricate production numbers and trite plot and the result was lacklustre. Similarly Buster Keaton was flattened out when MGM took control. In the 1930s the MGM policy seemed wiser of the two. Audiences treated MGM films as the most impressive and artistic of their day and Paramount’s chaotic individuality ran the studio into severe financial difficulties and imposed restructuring of the studio in 1935 . Paramount lost in the process WC Fields Marx Brothers to name a few. Today the MGM films look flat and dead besides the exuberant vitality of Paramount’s.

The studios also differed in the genres they handled. RKO was remarkable for the smooth comedies with Cary Grant,and both the adventure films and comedies directed by Howard Hawks.Warner Brothers was most remarkable for its gangster,musicals and biographies. 20th Century Fox excelled in historical and adventure films directed by John Ford,Tyrone Power,Henryhathaway,Henry King. Universal excelled in the horror films-Frankenstein,Dracula,WolfMan, and the comedies of WC Fields.

Most directors were staff directors-competent,proficient and unimaginative technicians who took every script the received ,shot it and then passed the footage along to the editing department for shaping into its final form. There were exceptions to these those who were to individualistic that they like great stars could do films for other studios other than the ones thy had signed their contract. Walt Disney and Charley Chaplin worked for themselves. Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Clair made films for the studios and were imported from abroad. Maurice Stiller, Orson Welles( destroyed by the studio) couldn’t work within the system. Then there are directors like Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Hawks,Ford,and Capra who were products of the system and could work within it. In order to do their own Ford and Hawks had to make a number of mediocre films. These great directors avoided the Hollywood clichés and infused so much life about them to give the cliches a fresh cast and color.

Ernest Lubitsch for example could avoid formulas of what to say and how to say it. He even enjoyed playing with them. Central Lubitsch subject was sex, something that the studio system accepted as a necessary evil. In 1933 the formal code was to eliminate sex from the movies. In the studio years a woman was pure or fallen and a gentleman either faithful or a rake. Lubitsch could show that even faithful husbands have their rakish streak and women were not statues but women with powerful drives of their own. In an era of plaster-cast idealism of American male his cynicism was not as grotesque or bitter as of Erich von Stroheim.

On the whole studio system helped great many directors hone their skills and learn the craft. It was a liberating experience for them to make some good films if not the films that we treat as classic films. Mervyn LeRoy din’t direct a film as The Graduate of Mike Nichols. LeRoy made more films between 1930 and 1933 than Mike Nichols will make in a lifetime.

About the system there are two opposite critical opinions. The system created a very clear tension between art and commerce. Art defies mass production and assembly lines.The system bred popular entertainment, a myth as people who lapped up everything that flashed in front of their eyes. They were in awe of the stars, the glamor and the glossy perfection of a system that made the problems of life go away at least for a short while. The system played upon the wishes and dreams of the masses : the poetic justice worked too well and the crime paid in the end. Optimism of the good despite of every bad thing that visited them and reward of suffering the greed of crooked bankers, politicians gave them a false sense of American idealism as distinct from the way things worked in Europe. In a sense the system played too safe to displease public opinion and the powerful lobbies.(in the way the Motion Picture industry handled the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of 1947 one cannot miss fear of commerce than morals among the studio heads. They created a blacklist of their own.) The system stoked the gullibility of the masses and made them participants of a communal experience and a religious affirmation of the society. Such optimism which we see now by hindsight was based on misplaced naivete. Most films produced under the system are more interesting sociologically than aesthetically. The system ironed out what it considered as

too individualistic and no wonder MGM could not stomach WC Fields who,ripped up the sentimental cliches of propriety,Protestant ethics, or Marx Brothers who ridiculed high finance,higher education democracies and everything that the studio bosses held in mortal awe.


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Napoleon is a remarkable attempt by any filmmaker, by any standards to have embarked upon and at any time. Of course Balzac set out to replicate the achievements of the little corporal in literature and succeeded. Instead of a sword or pen Abel Gance set out to record the life of Napoleon on celluloid and that too during the silent era! It is only appropriate that the film was attempted by a Frenchman. The bio-pic was originally intended as a series of back to back productions in a series of six ninety-minute films. The intention was to cover his whole life. Gance however ran out of money by the time he came to the Italians campaigns of 1796 just as the subject of his magnum opus didn’t have enough to feed his army. The General could let the army live off the lands they ran over, a luxury that Abel Gance didn’t have.
Gance had managed a single film of six hours and twenty-eight minutes, taking Napoleon to the opening of his Italian campaign. The American distributer MGM slashed it to less than an hour and half for its 1929 US release. It was like the distributor upped Midas in their penchant for profits. By slashing the movie length they turned Napoleon not into gold but into iron: naturally it was a flop and killed whatever chances he may have had to raise the money to continue further. In the ensuing decades Abel Gance kept on and completed footage enough to run for 275 minutes. The original version is sadly lost but in 1979 a restoration project undertaken by Kevin Brownlow we get a chance to peek into the mind of a remarkable film-maker.
Film-making can offer few more poignant cameos than that of Gance as a very old man watching from his hotel room window an outdoor screening of Brownlow’s work-in-progress print at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979. Thanks largely to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Ford Coppola and the Zoetrope Studio, screenings in London and New York in the early nineteen-eighties enabled Napoléon to receive the public acclaim it so richly merited. Coppola also had a laserdisc edition of the film in a shortened form – four hours as opposed to the five hours and thirteen minutes of footage than available – produced. Twenty and more years later, it is an injustice to both Gance and Brownlow that we have no possible opportunity to savour the version of Gance as he intended. Any work of genius one may tamper with at the risk of blighting it.

Technologically, Napoléon was before its time, at key points anticipating the introduction of Cinemascope thirty years later through the use of three projectors to produce a composite triptych image. Moments such as when Rouget de l’Isle teaches the “Marseillaise” to the crowd gathered in the Club des Cordeliers, when the ghosts of the leaders of the Revolution confront Napoleon in the deserted Assembly Hall prior to his departure to take over the army in Italy or when Napoleon’s eagle hovers over the army in the final triptych are unforgettable. Gance’s inspired cutting drives the action forward at an often blistering pace. He has even been lucky with his composers. Each of the three scores – the original by Honegger, the Carl Davis version used in London and, perhaps most of all, the version by Carmine Coppola used for the world tour – has been closely attuned to the imagery.
The feel of the film – its pulsating energy – cannot be better conveyed than by the final paragraphs of the scenario. The passage reads: “‘While the Beggars of Glory, their stomachs empty, but their heads filled with songs, leave history to pass into legend’ … The ragged troops are interrupted in their rhythm by the sight of a shadow on the road before them. The eagle! It stretches its wings across all three screens, and the great advance picks up its impetus. As the images become faster and faster the triptych becomes one gigantic tricolour flag, and the Chant du depart is succeeded by the Marseillaise. ‘A maelstrom fills all three screens. The whole Revolution, swept on at a delirious speed towards the heart of Europe, is now one huge tricolour, quivering with all that has been inscribed upon it, and it takes on the appearance of an Apocalyptic, tricolour torrent, inundating, enflaming and transfiguring, all at one and the same time'”.
So eloquent a passage cannot be experienced without emotion, or fail to recall the no less moving evocation of Napoleon at a very different point in his life of which Belloc wrote: “There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn in silence, with head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon. After him there trailed for days the shadows of soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men. It was as though the cannon-smoke of Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains. But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords”. This passage is taken from Hilaire Belloc’s masterly biography of Danton, and which Gance may well have read.
(ack: Race Mathews, Steven D. greydanus).


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The third and definitive film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s fantasy is a musical adventure and it made Judy Garland a star. Between this and A Star is Born we get to see her meteoric rise and decline which is how fantasies in Hollywood are likely to end up.
Dorothy Gale is an orphaned young girl unhappy with her drab black-and-white existence on her aunt and uncle’s dusty Kansas farm. Dorothy yearns to travel “over the rainbow” to a different world, and she gets her wish when a tornado whisks her and her little dog, Toto, to the Technicolorful land of Oz.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

You got that right, Dorothy. This is Hollywood. Where fantasies are made visible, audible, emotional. Even if we cannot guarantee you success no matter what, we can make you a star given the right ingredients in the Golden age of Cinema in technicolor.
So they did and it is a classic even in this age of superfluities and gratuitous sex and violence.

When L. Frank Baum published his children’s story in 1900 he didn’t think it would be held up as an original American fairy tale. Nor did he imagine it would be given an entirely new treatment in an altogether medium of celluloid. Yes his literary classic would be a cinematic milestone some 40 years later. L. Frank Baum overachieved and his book has been read by generations of children, who each grew up and read it to their own children. He went on to write a whole series of Oz books, taking up the characters he created in ‘The Wizard’ and giving them new adventures – 14 books in all. It did not even stop with his death in 1919, as Ruth Plumly Thompson and other writers continued the series, creating scores of volumes. Officially, there were 40 books in the series, but there were many unofficial additions. Even the Russians wrote some.

You’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz
You’ll find he is a Whiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was
If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was,
The Wizard of Oz is one because…

When MGM made their movie in 1939, they wanted a big success with the relatively new process of Technicolor. Disney had enjoyed massive success with the color animation Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. Now MGM wanted a share of this cake. Director Victor Fleming was a very busy man. He took over after George Cukor who was fired by the studio. Cukor was called to work on MGM’s flagship project, Gone With the Wind. Later, when Cukor had run foul of Clark Gable, Fleming found himself directing GWTW by day and editing Wizard by night. King Vidor took over in the Wizard studio and directed the Kansas sequences. Between them, these men took Frank L. Baum’s classic children’s fantasy and added a few Hollywood ingredients:

* a transformation from black and white Kansas to an Oz so Technicolor that it almost hurt your eyes
* some hardened professional character actors, including at least one drunk
* a troop of midgets
* unforgettable songs that children could learn and carry on singing into their twilight years
* a young Judy Garland (although not as young as Dorothy) conveying the innocence of a Kansas farm girl but with the singing voice of a streetwise angel
* the best special effects 1939 technology could deliver.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some like me who has not yet read the real but just got carried by the reel. So for those who think this is another New Age wizardry set in Avalon or in the Middle Kingdom, here is what happens.

Anyway, Dorothy and Toto manage to get caught up in a twister and see all sorts of people whizz by them. ( Apparently, Toto was put out of filming for a fortnight when one of the crew stepped on the little animal.) When they come back to solid ground, everything has suddenly become brightly colored – not a bit like dull old Kansas, filmed in black and white. It turns out that Dorothy has inadvertently killed the Wicked Witch of the East, making her a hero to the diminutive locals, the Munchkins.

Ding-dong, the witch is dead!
The wicked witch!
Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead!
Dorothy heads down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where dwells the all-powerful Wizard of Oz, who might be able to help the girl return to Kansas. En route, she befriends a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow would like to have some brains, the Tin Man craves a heart, and the Lion wants to attain courage; hoping that the Wizard will help them too, they join Dorothy on her odyssey to the Emerald City.

Having offended the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy is protected from the old crone’s wrath by the ruby slippers that she wears. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), is there to safeguard her and needs to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, and she does.

Together they meet with the imposing Wizard of Oz, who promises them their hearts’ desires (brain, heart, courage, a return flight to Kansas) if they will only kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of course they triumph, after a few surreal setbacks, including an attack by blue winged monkeys. Dorothy sings some more and gets back home older and wiser.

Then close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home’.

Frank L. Baum’s story works because it is a great story, with a mythic center that is nothing short of an allegory for growing up. The story had been filmed before, in 1925, but this is the version that will be remembered as long as movies are remembered. Why?

* Because of the way the Technicolor Oz bursts onto the screen.
* Because everybody remembers “Over the Rainbow”, but nobody ever sung it quite like Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm). This hit song by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg was nearly chopped from the picture after the first preview because it “slowed down the action.”
* Because everybody, adult and child, has had a dream that seemed apparently senseless and yet made perfect sense.

Garland was MGM’s second choice for Dorothy after Shirley Temple dropped out of the project; and Bolger was to have played the Tin Man but talked co-star Buddy Ebsen into switching roles. When Ebsen proved allergic to the chemicals used in his silver makeup, he was replaced by Haley. Gale Sondergaard was originally to have played the Wicked Witch of the West in a glamorous fashion, until the decision was made to opt for belligerent ugliness, and the Wizard was written for W.C. Fields, who reportedly turned it down because MGM couldn’t meet his price. The Wizard of Oz was too expensive to post a large profit upon initial release; however, after a disappointing reissue in 1955, it was sold to network television, where its annual showings made it a classic.
(ack: Hal Erickson)

DVD Releases
Similar Movies
Alice in Wonderland (1983, Harry Harris)
A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)
Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1979, Bill Melendez)
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914, John Farrell MacDonald, L. Frank Baum)
Alice in Wonderland (1933, Norman Z. McLeod)
A Wrinkle in Time (2003, John Kent Harrison)
The Cat Returns (2002, Hiroyuki Morita)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968, Ken Hughes)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Thousands Cheer (1943, George Sidney)
Courage of Lassie (1946, Fred Wilcox)
The Three Musketeers (1948, George Sidney)
Sweethearts (1938, W.S. Van Dyke)
Boom Town (1940, Jack Conway)
Dancing Pirate (1936, Lloyd Corrigan)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)
The Affairs of Cellini (1934, Gregory La Cava)
Other Related Movies
is featured in: That’s Entertainment! (1974, Jack Haley, Jr.)
is related to: Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)
The Wizard of Oz (1925, Larry Semon)
20th Century Oz (1976, Chris Lofven)
The Lion of Oz (2000, Tim Deacon)
The Wizard of Oz (1933, Ted Eshbaugh)
The Wizard of Oz (1991, Jim Simon)
The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)
Harold Arlen: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (1999, Don McGlynn)
The Marvelous Land of Oz (1987, Gerald Potterton, Tim Reid)
The Wizard of Oz (2004)
Veggie Tales: The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s
Tin Man (2007, Nick Willing)
Zardoz (1973, John Boorman)
Rainbow (1978, Jackie Cooper)
His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914, L. Frank Baum)
The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story (1990, Jack Bender)
Being Dorothy (2003, Howard Goldberg)
Return to Oz (1964)
Under the Rainbow (1981, Steve Rash)
Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001, Robert Allan Ackerman)
influenced: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Roy Rowland)
has been remade as: The Wiz (1978, Sidney Lumet)
The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005, Kirk R. Thatcher)
(ack:www. allmovie.com)

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GWTW – is possibly the most watched film ever. David O. Selznick’s grand obsession was to make a great movie from Margaret Mitchell’s best selling novel of the Civil War. He spent lavishly, recruited great stars (and made one out of Vivien Leigh) and ended up with a piece of cinema that rocked 1939 audiences and still strikes a chord with many today.

Despite an epic canvas, this is fundamentally the story of one vivacious but flawed heroine. Casting the part of Scarlett O’Hara was a piece of hype that had everybody buzzing with anticipation. Actresses were ready to kill to take this coveted role. The field included Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Paulette Goddard, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer and Mae West. Selznick famously ran a 2 year talent search for someone to play the role and 2000 screen tests were done. When Leigh was cast, she was unknown to American audiences, although no stranger to the London stage, or to the bed of Lawrence Olivier.

People were expecting great things of Leigh, and they got them. Her co-star, Clark Gable, gave the performance of his life as Rhett Butler. His part too was hotly contested; Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn all had their names associated with the role at one time or another.

When Rhett Butler tells Scarlet O’Hara:

You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.

we all know he doesn’t exactly mean “kissing”. The Civil War is merely a backdrop, this is really a story about sex.

Numerous writer and directors worked on the film: George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, kidnapped from directing the unfinished The Wizard of Oz. Fleming collected the Best Director Oscar for GWTW but was himself replaced by Sam Wood, before everything was in the can. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht and others all had a hand in the screenplay credited to Sidney Howard who won another Oscar, posthumously. Yet more names contributed to the cinematography but the true begetter of this film was David O Selznick.

Hattie McDaniel played the black slave Mammy who dotingly serves Scarlet, while chiding her recklessness. McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Academy Award. McDaniel’s role in Gone With the Wind was such a strong racial stereotype that her award may not actually have moved forward the cause of equality for black actors.

Certainly, the film presents slavery as an acceptable norm. Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized view of the Old South is shown on screen for us to read:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

…and thank goodness it has.

Doubtless, one of the last of those Gallant Cavaliers  was Ashley Wilkes, theatrically portrayed by Leslie Howard. A true Southern gentleman who is the object of Scarlett’s ambition. Unfortunately for Scarlett, Ashley plans to marry his demure cousin Melanie Hamilton from Atlanta. Rhett Butler overhears Scarlett’s desperate protestation of love for Ashley. Out of spite, Scarlett marries Melanie’s sickly brother, but is soon widowed when the war begins.

The action moves to Atlanta, where Scarlett meets Rhett again, now much admired as a blockade runner. But one man’s hero is another man’s profiteer:

I believe in Rhett Butler. He’s the only cause I know. The rest doesn’t mean much to me.

Rhett Butler sounds a lot like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine.

The Yankees lay siege to Atlanta. As the city falls to the Union troops, Melanie goes into labor. In a memorable scene we see Scarlett passing among thousand of wounded soldiers as she seeks the doctor. After delivering the baby herself she is rescued by Rhett and in one of the most legendary scenes of the cinema, they drive through the burning city of Atlanta.

The war ends, Ashley returns, Scarlett schemes and deals to bring prosperity back to her beloved Tara, eventually marries Rhett, yet he never truly masters her.

I’ve always thought a good lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely.

They separate, their daughter dies, Melanie dies and Ashley make plain he never loved Scarlet. Scarlet tries to win back Rhett but…

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The film should have ended here but in fact closes on an optimistic note. Scarlet returns to Tara.

I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!

So, in a sunset glow as corny as any you’ll ever see in any movie, we goodbye to the outrageous Scarlet O’Hara. Selznick has delivered a masterpiece of melodrama on an epic scale and justified his enormous budget. No film before or since has put so many bums on so many seats in so many cinemas. Best Picture 1939? You bet.

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