Thursday, July 1, 2010
The Howards of Virginia (1940)
The story is one of those span-of-years tales, in this case from the boyhood of lead character Matt Howard, played by Cary Grant, when his father was killed fighting Indians when Virginia was under British rule during the French and Indian War, to Matt’s adulthood as a solider of the young Continental Army fighting to end British rule during the Revolutionary War.
The costumes mostly are pretty good (except for the wedding dress, too modern), and so are the hairstyles, the sets, and furniture. Some care went into the making of this film, and it is impressive that part of the filming was actually done in Williamsburg, Virginia. So far, so good.
But I wonder if sometimes planting a story against an historical backdrop, and using that backdrop only as kind of puppet show stage scenery and not as an organic element to drive the story is kind of like having a canvas with a beautiful landscape on it and then painting stick figures in the foreground. They stand out badly and it’s hard to appreciate the pretty background anymore because all your eye can focus on is those stupid stick figures.
Our chief stick figure here is Cary Grant. Some have called him miscast in this movie, and maybe he was, but I have to wonder if half the problem is just the way the character was written. Grant seems to be pretty one-dimensional, buffoonish and Always! Seems! To! Talk! In! Exclamation! Points!
Cary Grant spends the entire movie shouting, not in anger or with passion, but just normal every day speech. Hello becomes HELLO!!!! His hyperkinetic overacting is a distraction, and rather fatiguing to watch after a while.
Martha Scott plays the well-born lady this frontier fool pines for, and though it would seem her sedateness and dignity might soften Mr. Grant’s explosive personality, it doesn’t really. Sometimes she seems a bit remote with little warmth.
Cary Grant takes Martha Scott out to the western lands of Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley to carve out a home in the wilderness, but a home similar to the mansion she left behind in elegant Williamsburg. Their new mansion goes up with remarkable speed. It’s nice to see Anne Revere in a brief role as a frontier neighbor lady. Nobody could pull the job off better than she.
These scenes are reminiscent to “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939) which we discussed last year, but the leap Martha Scott has to take to make a life here with the rustic folk is much greater than the adjustment Claudette Colbert had to make. For one, we may understand that Miss Colbert’s character is likewise from a background more genteel than frontier husband Henry Fonda’s. But her genteel heritage is likely based on commerce. Colbert’s family from the northern colony of New York and New England derived their social superiority from trade.
Martha Scott isn’t just rich. She’s aristocratic. The caste system of Olde England transplanted itself in Virginia and the southern states in a way it never much did in New England, which was the repository of outcast Pilgrims and Puritans bent not on copying life in England but forging a new society where they would be top dog…a level of superiority they would have never achieved back in the old country.
historical symbols in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), we have a schoolroom quick survey of American taglines as history through Paine’s words. Give me liberty or give me death. You remember that one.
This kind of use of slogans to represent eras does nothing to increase our understanding of an era, but only serves to confirm what we already think we know.
We don’t see too much of Dicey through the movie, she’s not Scott’s constant companion in life the way Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” was with Scarlett O’Hara, but we observe she deports herself with every bit as much high-born dignity as does Miss Scott. None of the slaves depicted in this film come off as caricature.
Still, it might be argued by some that the few dismissive glimpses we are given of the slaves indicate this is another example of Hollywood’s racism. I don’t think so, not entirely in this case, and for two reasons. First, the movie isn’t about the slave experience, it’s about the blustering Matt Howard. (Though for my money, a little less shouting Cary Grant and little more soft spoken Dicey might have made it a more interesting movie.)
Second, there is an interesting dramatic dynamic we can see here if we look for it. We learn about the slaves’ place in the world even by their diminished film presence. Just by viewing them in the background, we see how marginalized their lives are, how controlled their lives are, how little credence they were given by both Colonial America and by 1940s Hollywood.
I believe this effect here was unintended, the by-product of an era in Hollywood filmmaking. However, it was used on purpose with great success, if you remember, in the British television series “Upstairs/Downstairs.” We get to know the servants best when they have their scenes “below stairs” in the kitchen or servants’ dining hall. Here they are animated and effusive.
Then, when the bell rings and the butler Hudson, played by Gordon Jackson, goes upstairs to the morning room to answer the summons, the camera, the story, and mood shifts to the upper class family by whom the servants are employed. We are now treated to a scene of what is going on in the masters’ lives, and Gordon Jackson, grog tray in hand, stands in the background and blends in with the wall. Suddenly, the man we thought we knew so much about, with such a strong personality downstairs, becomes a stranger, an enigma to us. It tells us all we need to know about his place in society.
So it is with Dicey and her fellow servants. We get a brief look into her feelings and sensibilities, and then the door slams shut when the focus is back on her owners. It may not be satisfying to the audience who want to know more about her, but it is dramatically effective and historically accurate.
(I wish American television could turn out a product as good as “Upstairs/Downstairs” with similar subject matter. We have a lot of history to dabble in, if only we weren’t so lazy about depicting it in more than just convenient slogans and taglines, and not being willing to spend more money than it would take to put on a “reality” or talent contest shows, or fear being too historically accurate, thereby “losing” an uninformed general audience, or otherwise fear of offending modern sensibilities by being too accurate.)
Besides, a better evidence of Hollywood’s racism is that Libby Taylor, who played Dicey, spent a couple of decades playing maids and ladies’ room attendants.
The films ends, or we should say, tries to wrap itself up, with the astonished Grant recognizing a quality in his son even more important than his heroism. He observes that young Peyton, though ignored and dismissed his whole life as less worthy, is a kind and gentle person with no hatred in his heart. Grant declares to Martha Scott that their boy represents a new kind of person for the new nation they are founding, the best of both their worlds.
It’s a nice sentiment, and a wonderful goal to reach for, the idea that this republic may ever keep itself righted by the presence of kind, heroic people with no hatred in their hearts and the ability to forgive. It was an important message to send during the early years of World War II when the United States was not yet involved, but surely feared it probably would be before too long. We never quite seem to reach that placid plateau of good fellowship.
This project grew through the years, and now takes up nearly 85 percent of the original town, a beautifully restored living history museum, called Colonial Williamsburg. It is well worth a visit, and should be on the list of anybody with an interest in American history.
For more on Colonial Williamsburg, have a look at this website.
Happy Independence Day. Pace yourself eating those burgers and dogs.