Sunday, August 31, 2014

Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited

ISBN 978-0-300-16437-4
The day Molly Haskell's Frankly, My Dear arrived, I was bursting with excitement. For one thing, it is written by Molly Haskell whom I admire for her candid analysis of movies while never losing sight of her love of films. Secondly, I have a very personal connection to Gone with the Wind (1939). My mom loved the movie--so much so that I am named after one of the characters. Watching Gone with the Wind was a momentous event in our household. To this day, I get shivers whenever I hear "Tara's Theme." In many ways, this emotional response is what Haskell's book is about: why the movie and corresponding novel have been embraced by the American public year after year and how the two have influenced society. 

Before purchasing the book, I researched the reviews. There were some complaints that this wasn't a book about the making of the film; however, knowing the author, I didn't expect it to be. That being said, Haskell does include interesting tidbits and anecdotes about the making of Gone with the Wind (hereafter referred to as GWTW) including the exhaustive search for the perfect Scarlett, Clark Gable and Leslie Howards's aversion to making the film (and what enticed them to do so), the amount of writers and directors the overzealous Selznick went through, and the final cost to produce the film ($4,250,000). I already knew most of these facts and suspect GWTW enthusiasts will as well. Point being that Frankly, My Dear is for someone who is looking for something beyond basic trivia.

After establishing the historical importance of GWTW--the first chapter is called "The American Bible"--Haskell discusses the similarity of the three principles: David Selznick (the producer), Vivien Leigh (the star), and Margaret Mitchell (the author of the novel). She describes their backgrounds, arguing that their ambition, internal conflicts, and intensity contribute to the success of the film.  Each had something to prove, to stoke the fire: Selznick to avenge a wrong against his father; Leigh to personify Scarlett in order to win the coveted role, then to complete the film and return to her beloved Olivier; and Mitchell to expose the hypocrisies of upper-crust Southern society

'20s flapper, '30s matron

Although Mitchell did not like the insincerity of high society, she was not willing to abandon her South for Hollywood. In the chapter, "Finding the Road to Ladyhood Hard," Haskell explores the conflicts which plagued the author and thereby shaped the novel and movie. Haskell describes Mitchell as an "outsider/insider" (123). She was both tomboy and Southern lady, a free-spirited flapper and settled society matron, a social butterfly and recluse. Mitchell resisted and then surrendered to the Southern ideal of womanhood. This tug-of-war on her identity is present in GWTW through the virtuous Melanie, who was Mitchell's intended herione, and the scandalous Scarlett, who is the embodiment of Mitchell's rebellious side, too strong to keep subdued on the sidelines. 

Under the guise of  demure Southern lady, Scarlett "gets away with [nonconformity] in a way that is rare, not to say unprecedented in movies, given a double standard that generally grants such immunity only to the male of the species" (98). New concepts of womanhood are allowed to emerge. Haskell points out that Scarlett lacks a maternal instinct (shown more completely in the book than on screen) and rebuffs the idealization of marriage: "'Marriage fun?' replies a disbelieving Scarlett. She's not buying" (102). Additionally, the backdrop of war and Reconstruction makes it possible for the genteel Southern woman to show strength and take on the 'masculine' qualities of leadership and self-preservation:
The woman who wanted nothing more than a shoulder to lean on has become, by default, the mainstay, the authority figure upon whom others must lean. (94)
Men's roles are also transformed in GWTW. Typically reserved for women, the categorization of virgin and whore can be applied to the leading men of GWTW. Female viewers are given the choice between Ashley, "the wan and perfect blonde" and Rhett, "the lustrous and passionate brunette" (185). Additionally, the idea of the handsome hero going off to war is called into question. Haskell argues that the manly heroes of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) become weaklings in GWTW. They go off to play a game of war while women face the true hardships of home. From the mouth of Scarlett:
"Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the heads of cowards as quickly as of heroes. Any fool can be brave on the battle field when it's be brave or else be killed." (194)
Haskell contends GWTW "is genuinely antiwar"--once the battle field's "adrenaline rush of violence" is removed, the reality of war sets in (201).

An analysis of GWTW would be incomplete without considering the portrayal of the African American experience. Haskell acknowledges Mitchell's guilt of painting "slavery with a happy face" (209). At the same time, though, the film challenged the prevailing thought that African Americans were aggressive and dangerous as was portrayed in Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Haskell explains that,
With Mitchell, the taint of slavery was transmogrified into harmonious cohabitation, a hierarchy [...] in which the white trash Slatterys were far more lazy, noxious, and parasitic than Negroes, especially the house 'darkies,' who look down on the field hands [...] (209) 
Haskell brings her own experience of being both Southern (born and raised) and Northerner (her current home) to explain the inability for people outside of the South to understand the interdependent relationship between blacks and whites, which is shown in the book and film, where they "complement and complete each other in important ways, their intimacy a fact of life" (210). The thought reminds me of the recent novel The Help (2009) in which the young white children, particularly the main character, have a special relationship with the black women who care for them. The author of The Help, also a Southerner, and Haskell seem to share a special understanding elusive to those not from the South.

Hattie McDaniel
Haskell points out that current film scholars agree that despite the obvious racism, there is much to applaud in "the strength of the black presence at a time when there were few roles of color at all" (211). Unfortunately for Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the NAACP did not see the film in this light. Although she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress--the first awarded to an African American, the head of the NAACP attacked McDaniel for betraying her race. She also faced racial discrimination when her invitation to the premiere in Atlanta was rescinded, and when she was not allowed to sit at the white cast members' table at the Oscars. Nonetheless, McDaniel's role was one of vital significance, and Haskell purports that GWTW "contains unusually finely drawn portraits of blacks who are given voices, humor, and importance" (209).

Frankly, My Dear was a light, quick read. Enjoyable. Definitely for those who love the film and/or the novel. Haskell explores the many messages put forth by the movie, but also provides insight into the effects of the various directors, writers, set designers, cinematographers, and actors.  She looks at why the American public is so enamored with the movie, and how the movie became the institution it currently is. I can't wait to read this book again.
 This is my final submission to the:

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Just for fun, here is a video of screen tests:


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Tribute to Lauren Bacall

The movie that introduced me to Lauren Bacall was The Big Sleep (1946). I was twelve and didn't have an inkling as to what was going on. Since then, I've seen the movie over a dozen times. I still am not completely positive on what is occurring, but according to many film critics' analyses, I'm not in the minority. Regardless of my level of understanding, I fell in love with the film. More specifically, I fell in love with Lauren Bacall. 
I was drawn to her. Her throaty voice. The way she was tough, yet exuded sexiness at the same time (her wiggle dance at the end of To Have and Have Not (1944) is a fabulous example of this - see below). She had an edge. She was dangerous, a little bit bad but not unforgivingly so. Here was a woman who was flesh and blood, not categorized as virgin or victim. Here was a woman I wanted to grow up and become.
Bogart, Bacall, and Sinatra
She also had swagger--there was no doubt she could keep up with the boys (and growing up the only girl among boys, this was an extremely important characteristic in my young eyes). My later discovery that she--along with hubby Bogie--was one of the original members of the Rat Pack only confirmed my suspicion that she could hang with the boys. 

All this and she had style too. My college years introduced me to such classics as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Designing Woman (1957), in which fashion took center stage. I was often so engrossed in the fashion of these films that I forgot to follow the plot. Oh that gorgeous purple and white number with those incredibly impractical, yet breathtakingly beautiful puff sleeves! Yes, this was a woman I wished to emulate.

Visit GlamAmor for more on this film's fashion.

So when the news came that she had passed, I couldn't help but be filled with sorrow. And when TCM shows their tribute clip to her, my eyes water (should I be embarrassed by this?). I know she was 89, a good age with a full life. But there was something special about Lauren Bacall. She was my hero, my role model. The only consolation in her death is the knowledge that she is reunited with her Bogie at last. 
The legendary Bogie and Bacall - Source

Lauren Bacall's aforementioned "wiggle dance"

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Double Standards in the Bedroom

A few months ago, I discovered Sunday in New York (1963), a gem of a film that questions society's dividing line between madonna and whore. In less than ten minutes, Sunday in New York cuts to the chase when Eileen (Jane Fonda) asks her older brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), 
"Is a girl that's been going around with a fella a reasonable length of time supposed to go to bed with him or not?"
Her brother gives an emphatic no, so she rephrases the question. "Is she expected to?"
Despite being the virtuous girl, the madonna, Eileen's long time beau has dropped her because she wouldn't--to use the lingo of the movie--loosen her morals. This isn't the first time she has lost a boy for this reason. So what will big brother say--big brother who has intimate flings unbeknownst to sister? I bet you can guess.

"Men marry decent girls."   
And how exactly did we know this would be his answer in spite of his own amorous activities? Because when it comes to the bedroom, Hollywood has taught us there is a double standard between men and women. While men are allowed, nay, expected to sow their oats, women concern themselves with maintaining their reputations and reforming their wayward men. 

Consider the worldly Rock Hudson characters to Doris Day's virginal ones, 
"You are my inspiration..."
 from Pillow Talk (1959) - Source

Fred MacMurray's bureau full of pictures in Millionaire for Christy (1951),

Frank Sinatra's parade of women in The Tender Trap (1955), 

and when Jean/Lady Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to punish Charles (Henry Fonda), she knows the surest way is to marry him and then reveal an unholy history. 
Lady Eve lists her many (invented) paramours 
in The Lady Eve (1941).
It is through her virtue, that a woman wins the grand prize: marriage (granted the pursuit of marriage as an end goal is a bit dated--although if the wedding industry is any indictor, we remain a marriage-centric society). Eileen has found the message false; she has been virtuous and "lost quite a boy." She questions the black-and-whiteness of labels:
"The catch is in the word decent. It seems to have a comparative connotation. Like the girl who was a little bit pregnant."
Indeed, the decade prior saw plenty of girls arrive at the alter "a little bit pregnant" (National Vital Statistics), suggesting that sometimes "decent" girls give in.  

When Eileen discovers her brother's hypocrisy, she attempts a fling of her own with an unsuspecting stranger, Mike Mitchell (Rod Taylor)Mike--like her brother--has had experience with women, but when he finds out Eileen is a "beginner," he won't go through with the seduction. He explains that there are two kinds of girls, and she doesn't belong in the group who has "affairs." 

Ah yes, the dichotomy of the female race. A quick gander at Saved! (2004) or Easy A (2010) will illustrate that Sunday in New York retains its relevance. No matter how far we say we've come from the 1960s, the truth remains that women are still divided into two categories. And while Sunday in New York goes easy on the language, we know that one group of gals receives derogatory titles based on their sexual activities whereas men are not so classified. Or if they are, it is done by taking a female derogatory term and adding "male" to the front of it. Point being, there is no male-exclusive equivalent. The double standard. 

The movie attempts to break free from pigeon-holing women into two types. And in some ways, it does. On the sidelines,   Mona (Jo Morrow) is perfectly willing and eager to meet Adam for one of their romantic jaunts; it is evident she is not a beginner. A series of comical mishaps prevent their affair, and by the end of the evening, Mona gets what every girl wants (according to another message in the movies) from Adam: a proposal of marriage. It may seem to be a result of staying chaste this particular Sunday, but she is virtuous through no fault of her own. Remember Adam's words earlier in the film? 
"Men marry decent girls." 
In his proposal, the movie redefines "decent." 

Eileen also gets the boy. While the voiceover at the end of the movie would have the audience believe that "nice things [...] happen to a girl if she remains virtuous even on a rainy Sunday in New York," we know it was not through Eileen's own doing that she remains virtuous. There is a hint that she may not make it through the night. We last see her in a passionate embrace with her new fiancé. The room is dark and they are wearing only pajamas. 

In his February 1964 review of the film, Bosley Crowther comments that Sunday in New York, in the light of "the past 10 years, [where] the once-unmentionable has been discussed at almost tedious length in films," is "a wee bit old-hat." Old hat is the voiceover; however, if you look closely at the peripheral and peek around the corner, there is a new message trying to break through.