Monday, May 31, 2010

Symbolism in Gone with the Wind

In “Gone with the Wind” (1939), when in the closing days of the American Civil War Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, berates Melanie, played by Olivia de Havilland for feeding starving Confederate soldiers straggling home. Melanie relates that her husband Ashley was last known to be in a Northern prison camp…

“And maybe if he’s alive and well, he’s on some northern road right now, and maybe some Northern woman is giving him a share of her dinner and helping my beloved to come back home to me.”

Melanie’s typically sweet response reflects in some measure those Southern women who decorated the graves of Union soldiers after the war, which was the beginning of our Memorial Day. Today, we cover Memorial Day with a look at symbols in “Gone with the Wind.”

I have to warn you, this is going to be a long post. You might want to get a sandwich.

We’ve touched on Memorial Day and the Civil War as depicted in movies in previous posts on “Friendly Persuasion” (1956) and here on a compilation of Civil War movies. We noted particularly in this latter post that most Memorial Day television marathons show World War II movies. Since it was the American Civil War that gave us Memorial Day, it’s interesting to look at our film treatment of that war.

“Gone with the Wind” presents some interesting aspects of that era, especially of how that war has come down to us in symbols. Symbols are very important to us. They are stand-ins for deeper meaning or fuller explanation. A wreath on a soldier’s grave is a symbol. A Confederate flag is a symbol. We are still dealing with repercussions, not of the war, but of the war’s complicated aftermath when this flag first developed into a powerful symbol. The war’s aftermath constitutes most of “Gone with the Wind”.

Only last month, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) drew criticism when he issued a Confederate History Month proclamation that paid tribute to the state’s heritage as a member of the Confederate States of America, and omitted any mention of slavery. Gov. McDonnell explained that the proclamation was devoted to issues he felt were most "significant" to Virginia. The proclamation was requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

He afterwards re-issued the proclamation with the additional paragraph:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

It was admirable for him to correct the omission. Some may wonder how in this day someone might forget to mention slavery as a significant issue in the American Civil War. On the other hand, most of us by now have grown cynical with the knowledge that there are a vast number of people who dismiss facts which are uncomfortable for them.

However, part of this dismissing of facts, or at least of in-depth explanations, is due to our inevitable packaging of historical events in the form of convenient, no fuss-no mess symbols. These symbols are vivid, triggering instant recognition the same way corporate logos and commercial jingles are used. Sometimes they are used with the same purpose of “selling” an idea or image to us to trigger our acceptance and allegiance to that idea, the way commercials try to trigger our allegiance to a product.

Sometimes, however, we must fault our own laziness in teaching history this way, and our laziness in accepting history this way.

“Gone with the Wind” is a lush, lavish soap opera about survival, told through memorable characters and a dramatic backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. It is excellent storytelling, and is a movie that many of us can watch again and again. Despite our familiarity with it, it remains captivating and enjoyable.

It is not an historical documentary. It is storytelling, and yet for many people it is possibly their introduction to the American Civil War, and perhaps even the sum total of their knowledge.

Plucking only a few symbols from this movie tells us a lot about our attitudes about the Civil War based on our ignorance.

When Scarlett receives a letter announcing the death of her first husband during the War, his commander writes, “Though Captain Hamilton was not vouchsafed a hero’s death upon the field of glory, he was none the less a hero, dying of pneumonia, following an attack of measles.” (For one thing, the penmanship is too modern to be 19th century style, but we’ll let that go.)

I can recall watching the film with others who chuckled at this, since it implies that goofy Charles Hamilton was a bit of a loser for dying in this unheroic manner. I believe probably the film’s famous producer, David O. Selznick, thought the same thing and so emphasized this frame of film where we see the letter with the flowery language and the irony of what is perceived to be an ignominious death.

However, most soldiers who died in the American Civil War died of disease, not battle wounds. We also might note that this is especially significant when we know that the battle deaths occurred in the thousands.

To put that into perspective, in the past seven years over 4,700 American service personnel have been killed in Iraq. As terrible a price that is to pay, in the four-year period of the American Civil War over 200,000 battle deaths occurred, North and South. The deaths due to disease were over 400,000, more than twice that of deaths due to battle wounds. About two-thirds of the over 600,000 military personnel who died in the Civil War died of illness.

Many battles resulted in a loss of 30 percent of the soldiers on the field. Thousands were mowed down in minutes. We could not, and would not, endure such statistics today. For deaths due to sickness to top that alarming rate is astounding.

So, Charles Hamilton’s sickbed fatality is not so worth smirking at after all. It is not a joke; it is a tragedy.

Another symbol we may address is the Confederate flag. One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Scarlett wanders out of the hospital to look for Dr. Meade, played by Harry Davenport. She walks out to the railroad yard where wounded men have been deposited and are awaiting treatment. As the camera pans back, we see her become smaller and smaller as she disappears into a sea of wounded men. Finally, the camera pans back far enough for us to have a bird’s-eye view, with a tattered Confederate flag snapping in the breeze in the foreground.

It is a wonderful symbol of pride being humbled by defeat in battle, of a proud young nation struggling to establish its identify under bleak circumstances.

But the so-called Confederate flag, that dramatic design of blue crossed bars on a red field, with stars for each Confederate state in the blue inverted cross, was never the flag of the Confederate States of America. It would never have flown in this manner from a town flagpole at the rail yard. It is a magnificent and stirring piece of symbolism, (movies love visuals) but it is the product of Hollywood imagination.

There were several flags of the Confederacy. The first was a blue flag with a single gold star, the so-called Bonnie Blue Flag, as in the song, “Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!” It is also where the daughter of Scarlett and Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, got her name: Bonnie Blue Butler.

This flag was followed by other designs, mostly based on a variation of the United States flag. Here you can see an example behind Harry Davenport as he conducts the ball. Here again it is behind the bandleader who announces to the crowd they are about to play the Virginia Reel. The flag was nicknamed The Stars and Bars.

(The only thing more dashing than Clark Gable is Clark Gable dancing the Virginia Reel. The ball sequence contains a lot of symbolism to illustrate the gracious and elegant heritage of the planter class of the Old South.)

What we know today as the so-called Confederate flag was actually a square battle flag. Flag bearers marched out onto the field of battle along with their company of soldiers. The Stars and Bars appeared too much like the Stars and Stripes on the battlefield, so General P.G.T. Beauregard, Army of Northern Virginia, sought a different design after the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) to keep troops from being confused in battle and being the victims of friendly fire.

This design was created and was used in various versions for many battle flags for different fighting units of the Confederacy. Late in the war in 1865, part of this design was used in yet another new official flag of the Confederacy. Today part of this design is found on the flags of many southern states.

What makes people today recognize this flag as the Confederate flag is perhaps due to two circumstances. One, the South lost the war, and when devastation occurs it is usual for people to blame politicians first. It may be that the Stars and Bars, though revered as their nation’s flag early in the war, became a bitter reminder of a failed government of a country that no longer existed.

The South’s reverence was transferred from their government and their cause, to their veterans who had fought so bravely and so skillfully against incredible odds. They took the old Army of Northern Virginia battle flag design to their hearts as a symbol of the courage of their men.

A second circumstance is that this flag was early on adopted by the post-war fraternal group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that same, still active group which prompted Virginia Governor McDonnell to issue a Confederate History Month proclamation.

There were other circumstances that took root in the late 19th century and continued to blossom in the 20th: the Ku Klux Klan adopting this flag as their standard, as did many hate groups, Neo-Nazis and the like, whose reverence for a self-styled superior heritage is as twisted as their ignorance of the true history of this flag. Today the flag is still used in both ugly hate demonstrations, and also in completely innocuous venues. Neither use, however, either as threat or as an innocent gesture of regional pride, displays an accurate knowledge of the history of this flag.

But the symbolism that has come down to us, that symbolism which spurs us to instant recognition, is complex, mainly due to ignorance of how this flag was really used. To some today it will symbolize the Old South. To others, a rebellion against oppressive government. To others, it means racial domination.

General Beauregard only wanted a battle flag to keep his men from being fired upon by members of his own army in the confusion of battle.

The truth may not always set us free, but it can sometimes shed a light on things.

As for the above-mentioned Ku Klux Klan, this organization was also used by some as a symbol of righteous Southern men preserving their heritage and defending the honor of their women. Director D.W. Griffith famously brought enormous controversy upon himself when he depicted Klansmen as heroes in “Birth of a Nation” (1915), see previous post part 1 here and part 2 here.

GWTW delves into this vigilante-as-hero only a bit in the scene where Scarlett is attacked in Shanytown, and Ashley, played by Leslie Howard, and her second husband, Frank, played by Carroll Nye, along with a gang of other noble heroes of the gentlemen class, must “clean them out”. They set fire to the camp of indigents.

Union solider Ward Bond barks,

“A lot of those shantys were burned. A couple of men were killed. It’s about time you Rebels learn you can’t take the law into your own hands.”

It is mild castigation, and we may note that there is no further reference in the film to the Klan that would become famous as an underground group of terrorists whose sole purpose was to oppress African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born Americans. Hanging, along with mutilation, and setting fires to churches, was a favorite pastime. It might also be noted that the Klan enjoyed its zenith not in the immediate years following the war, but in the 1920s, only the decade before this film was made.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s did much to dispel the myth of respectability, and to shine a light on the hypocrisy of so-called respectable men who would see oppression of others as their path to righteousness, as an expression of their heritage.

But GWTW treads lightly on such racial issues, which is quite a trick to pull off. To be sure, the film is racist in its depiction of “good” blacks as being the servile ones. We have Gerald O’Hara, played by Thomas Mitchell, exhorting Scarlett to be firm but gentle with “inferiors.” We have the symbol of the well-dressed haughty (I believe the term back in the day would be “uppity”) black man singing “Marching Through Georgia” to insult the Southerners. We have the sharpster selling gullible ex-slaves on the “40 acres and a mule” slogan. All visual symbols strung together to be a kind of easy survey course in American history. No fuss, no mess, no in-depth explanation.

However, one can see a degree of sensitivity in Mr. Selznick’s helmsmanship. There are interesting clues to make one suspect he was fighting the good fight from behind the lines.

For instance, though Scarlett is attacked by ruffians, those ruffians were white men. The man who came to her rescue was Big Sam, played by Everett Brown, one of the former slaves on her family’s plantation.

In another scene, Big Sam and several other slaves are being marched through Atlanta, taken off their plantations by the Confederate army, to dig defense entrenchments. As they walk along, they ironically sing the spiritual, “Let My People Go.”

And though the African-American actors portray servile slaves, they nevertheless have their own distinct personalities. One of the great joys of this film is watching Hattie McDaniel holler at everybody.

She won a Best Supporting Actress award for her role, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award. Her best scene is when she is slowly walking up the grand staircase with Melanie, weeping over the death of Bonnie, and explaining the tragedy to Melanie and to us. Her emotional breakdown is one of the most genuine scenes in this film. Here she is not a servile slave, she’s a heartbroken woman, and we feel her agony. She was a great actress, and this is obviously a scene David O. Selznick can be proud to have in his film, because the two actresses in it transcend being either black or white. It just doesn’t matter at that moment.

Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, may be empty-headed, but she inflicts her will in her own unique ways. However, the producer missed the opportunity to show the character Uncle Peter, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in a better light.

This character is the slave of Aunt Pittypat Hamilton. Because Aunt Pittypat, played by Laura Hope Crews, is even more empty-headed than Prissy, in the novel this house servant with more sense than anybody actually runs the home. Uncle Peter decides when Melanie may put up her hair and go to parties, and when Charles may have a larger allowance, and he sends him to Harvard. In the movie, we only get to see Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the rain. It does nothing for the dignity of the man we see in the novel.

One more scene I find interesting if only because I think it’s significant that it has been ignored, is when after the war Scarlett gives her deceased father’s gold pocket watch to their servant, now former slave, Pork. He tells her that she should sell it to pay taxes on the property, but she insists that she would rather give the watch to him, as he was her father’s devoted manservant for many years.

Pork, played by Oscar Polk, is choked up, and Scarlett replies, “Don’t cry. I can stand everybody’s tears but yours.”

There’s more going on here than Scarlett showing kindness. Vivien Leigh actually takes Oscar Polk’s hands in hers, places the watch in his hands. Then she briefly cups his hands in hers and pats them in a comforting manner.

It lasts only a moment, but consider, in the later years of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1968, after so much progress had been made changing the attitudes of bigotry, there occurred the famous incident between Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte. British singer Petula Clark hosted a television special with Mr. Belafonte as her guest star. At the end of one duet they sang together, she lightly touched his arm in an unthinking, friendly gesture.

A representative of the show’s sponsor, Chrysler-Plymouth, requested that gesture be edited out. He did not want to offend his southern market. A white woman touching a black man. Petula Clark, who owned the show, stood her ground and would not allow the gesture to be edited out.

Nearly 30 years earlier in GWTW, a British white actress touches a black actor in a similar gesture, in an era where this could have been a huge problem with the film distribution in the south. It could have so easily been edited out.

It was left in. Perhaps it drew no fire because the woman was supposed to be the mistress of the house, and the man was supposed to be the servant. It was still a white woman touching a black man with affection. I wonder if David O. Selznick knew what he got away with.

All kinds of symbols. We make too much of some; we make too little of others.

The most entertaining aspect of GWTW is Scarlett’s and Rhett’s survival instincts that carry them through so much. When the war is over, Scarlett’s active mind switches immediately from peace to profit:

“Ashley’ll be coming home. We’ll plant more cotton! Cotton ought to go sky high next year.”

She sees before anyone the need to shake off the old failed experiment of the Confederacy and live for the here and now. She sees her downtrodden, confused father shuffle bits of paper, and asks him what they are.

“Bonds. They’re all we’ve saved, all we have left.”

“What kind of bonds?”

“Why, Confederate bonds, of course, Daughter.”

She blows off his reverence both for his bonds and his Confederacy.

We might take a leaf out of Scarlett’s book, or rather, author Margaret Mitchell’s, when we consider the importance of landing on our feet economically. Margaret Mitchell related that she first began to learn the story of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction when she was still a child and she played hooky from school. Her mother took her on a ride in the country, showing her dilapidated mansions and told her stories of people who could not, or would not adapt, how a whole society collapsed. She impressed upon her daughter the need for education and a sense of perspective, as much as the need for grit in a changing world. It left a seed in young Margaret’s mind.

David O. Selznick may have embroidered his film with flowery verbiage about “Cavaliers” and gallantry that is no more, “of a civilization Gone with the Wind…”, but Margaret Mitchell saw the less romantic and practical side of it, and that is what is most intriguing about the book, and most intriguing, when we see it, in the film.

Some have looked at the novel and the film as dismissing all that was abhorrent in the Old South, but Margaret Mitchell and all Southerners, white and black, deserve their pride of heritage. Margaret Mitchell, Governor McDonnell, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans included, none of us should feel defensive over the ways of our ancestors (especially to the point of diminishing the importance of certain facts), anymore than we have a right to take credit for their good deeds and achievements. Only what we ourselves do and say is what sticks to us. Let the past lie, but don’t kick dirt over it.

What we must all not allow is too much wallowing in symbols that don’t really mean what we want them to.

The American Civil War era was awash in contradictions. (Consider another brief scene in GWTW of a town band playing “Dixie” while the crowd waited for casualty lists after a major battle. The song so identified with the South was written by a Northerner for a minstrel show.)

The war was fought by southerners as a reaction to what they felt was a too-strong centralized government favoring northern interests. The main right they wanted to preserve was the right to own slaves, upon which their economy was based. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, a man who promised only to limit slavery in new territories, not to abolish it, the southern states kicked over the checkerboard, scattered the checkers and decided they didn’t want to play anymore. The idea of separatism has always been appealing when frustration reaches its peak.

They weren’t the first to think of secession. New England wanted to secede over the War of 1812 because fighting with Great Britain was destroying their economy. Just after the Revolution, farmers in western Massachusetts erupted in Shays’ Rebellion as a response to what they felt were eastern merchants oppressing them economically. Such rebellions never end well, at least not in a nation where working together has always benefited us more. Our whole system is specifically designed to capture the benefits of compromise. Separatists, and special interest groups, should remember that.

It is remarkable to think that after the terrible hatred and violence of the American Civil War, some southern ladies decided to honor the graves of enemy soldiers by placing flowers upon them. By such simple and gentle measures are great nations reborn.

(For another angle on Northern and Southern reconciliation, have a look at my essay on Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller and The American Accent on my New England Travels blog.)

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War when southern separatists attacked the United States military post at Fort Sumter. (The order to fire was given by the above-mentioned General Beauregard, who later gave us “the Confederate flag”.) We’ll be up to our eyeballs in symbolism. But I wonder if the anniversary will be as important to reviving interest in the Civil War as did the 100th anniversary commemorations in the early 1960s?

GWTW was re-released in theaters in 1961 just in time for the 100th festivities (again in 1967 in a 70mm stereophonic version). Now on DVD, I wonder if it will play any part in capturing the imaginations of a younger generation for the American Civil War? Or, perhaps for many the movie just seems to carry a greater impression of Hollywood in the 1930s than it does of the Old South.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Grub-Stake (1923)

There is something irresistably modern about her. Watching her lithe, tall body run, and climb, and even fight, we might forget for a moment that she did these things a very long time ago. It is the silent movie, the sepia tint, the title cards, and the accompanying music that underscores the moods that remind us Nell Shipman was strictly Back in the Day. She could fit comfortably in the world today, except perhaps that she was a maverick who did not seem to aspire to fitting in.

Today we have a look at “The Grub-Stake” (1923), a silent film written, produced, and starring Nell Shipman. My copy comes courtesy of your friend and mine, John Hayes from Robert Frost’s Banjo. John and his wife, Eberle Umbach, wrote and performed the score for this 2006 restored version of Miss Shipman’s little known masterpiece.

Nell Shipman, who cut her teeth in vaudeville and traveling acting troupes, was a woman of intelligence, extraordinary creativity, and astonishing grit, who shook off the trappings (and shackles) of Hollywood to form her own production company when indie films, let alone indie films with a woman at the helm, were unusual. And she did her own stunts.

“The Grub-Stake, A Tale of the Klondike”, a long eight-reeler, takes our Nell, a kind-hearted but na├»ve girl, from a waterfront slum in the Pacific Northwest where she cares for her invalid father, The Skipper, played by Walt Whitman (no relation) as a laundress and bumbling Jill-of-all-Trades.

A sauve entrepreneur from Gold Rush country, played by Alfred Allen, comes down for supplies, and bestows upon her a “grub stake”, that is financial backing, to start herself up a laundry in the Klondike to serve what she hopes will be a busy clientele of gold prospectors in dirty clothes.

But oh, the tangled web of fate! This sauve fellow is a Wicked Man, who compromises her, marries her (though he is already married), and hies her away to the Alaskan mining town where he runs a dance hall.

He immediately puts his “wife” to work dancing with wealthy men. Nell, who has shucked her simple sailor dress for fancy duds, is shocked to learn from the crude saloon madam with the heart of gold, played by Lillian Leighton, that she has been lured here for unsavory activities, which indeed may lead to a Fate Worse than Death.

So to speak.

“Dumb as an oyster” her husband notes when he decides she is the perfect pigeon for his chicanery.

It takes her a little while longer to discover that her husband is also just about to have her poor old father murdered by his stereotyped sinister Chinese toady.

But, Nell, full of righteous indignation and a bucketload of terror, packs up The Skipper, a new friend who is the adle-pated saloon lush dragging an imaginary dog on a piece of rope, and heads for the hills in a dogsled (pulled by real dogs, not imaginary ones). In a snowstorm. Filmed on location in Idaho, we have real snow and ice, and real frostbite, as the “making of” documentary on this DVD can attest.

We are treated to several more reels of winter, in which Nells gets separated and wanders blindly in foul weather until she takes refuge in a bear’s den. The bear takes kindly to her, in fact, kisses her full on the mouth. There will be a love story, but not yet. Not with the bear. They’re just good friends, apperances notwithstanding. Oh sure, they sleep together, but you really should get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not like that.

Several weeks pass as winter turns to spring and some beautiful nature photography guides the story. Nell finds comfort among the critters of the woods, a sense of affection and peace as she had never felt in civilization. Nell Shipman kept her own zoo of critters for these wildlife scenes, and it has also been noted by film historians that she was an early proponent of humane treatment for animal actors.

But, trouble returns in the form of her evil husband, a rowdy gang of claim jumpers, a relentless Mountie, and her sprained ankle that just does not seem to want to heal. Fortunately for Nell, the saloon madam has a handsome artist son, played by Hugh Thompson, who also lives in the woods. Eventually, true loves conquers all (this time with the artist, who is almost as affectionate as the bear), but not before we get a final cliffhanger with Nell actually hanging off a cliff. Did I mention she does her own stunts?

Watching Nell Shipman is a treat, mainly because of that unusual unaffected quality of hers that seems to reasonate beyond the decades since the time this film was made. Where other female stars of her era were waif-like, she is big and athletic. Perhaps because she made the film herself, there is no turning her into a comic buffoon, which could easily happen in the studio system back down in Hollywood where “types” were plugged into the machine.

Miss Shipman defied the types of the day. Her shaggy, unruly bobbed haircut, and her wry, subtle expressions of humor alternating with utter innocence are an intriguing contrast to the typical exaggerated pantomime of the day. She moves with natural, unselfconsicous energy, unlike some of the more tableau-stances typical of actresses in silent films of the time. I would not say she is a better actress than someone like Lillian Gish or Greta Garbo, who were more studied and trained. She was not a better actress, but her very ease and naturalness are refreshing.

The use of a natural setting itself seems like a bold example of Nell Shipman’s escape from the Hollywood studio.

I especially enjoyed John’s and Eberle’s score for this restored film, which follows the moods and conscience of the characters, and especially of the real woman at the helm. It must have been a fascinating process, interpreting not only the dramatic moods of the film as vingettes in music, but to try to relate the emotional and psychological regeneration of the Nell's character when she encounters nature.  In a sense, a musical score written for a silent film is rather like another script for the entire plot.

Can’t get enough plunking on a toy piano, for my money. For more on their participation in this, and in another of Nell Shipman’s films, have a look at John’s description here, and also here. John also gives a good bit of background on Miss Shipman’s career.

“The Grub-Stake” is third in a three-volume DVD series of Shipman’s films available at the Boise State University bookstore. Here’s a link to get your copy. Extras on this particular DVD include an interesting documentary on the making of “The Grub-Stake”, and another brief bio narrated by Nell Shipman’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

When “The Grub-Stake” was released, it received initial praise and brief success, until the distributing company suddenly failed and went out of business. This pulled the plug on Nell Shipman’s silent film career. It took many decades and the efforts of determined people like Tom Trusky of the Idaho Film Commission, research and restoration staff, including the likes of John and Eberle, to revive her masterpiece and share it with us.

My thanks to all of them for their efforts, and especially to John for sending me this very special DVD.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blondie Has Servant Trouble - 1940

Here’s an ad for “Blondie Has Servant Trouble” (1940), the sixth of a whopping 28 movies in the “Blondie” series. They don’t crank them out like that anymore.

Penny Singleton made her name and fame playing the newspaper cartoon character come to life, (she later went on to voice the animated cartoon character Jane Jetson). Arthur Lake was her bumbling husband Dagwood of the mighty sandwich and unmanageable cowlick. We are reminded in these B-movies that their son was called Baby Dumpling long before he was re-christened Alexander in the comic strip.

Penny Singleton was one of those workhorse actresses who began in vaudeville and plied her trade in whatever medium she could for every decade. She was also a noted performers’ union leader back in the day, and also holds the dubious distinction of being one of those Non-Entities whose names were left off the memorial tribute during the Oscar telecast, in this case it was in 2004 for the deaths of the previous year. You could probably make a parlor game of compiling the names of all the Nobodies Oscar has sent to oblivion.

Banished from official recognition perhaps, but not forgotten by us.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


As mentioned on Monday’s post, we’re giving away a copy of director David Lean’s classic “Doctor Zhivago”, in your choice of either DVD or Blu-ray, a new restoration released for the 45th anniversary of the film with a lot of extra goodies.

And the winner is…..


Congratulations! Now email me at:

...with the address to which you’d like your DVD or Blu-ray to be sent (please specify which one). Neither the address nor your name will be published. I’ll contact the folks who are donating the prize, and they’ll ship it to you directly.

Special thanks to Warner Home Video for providing the contest prize, and a review copy of the DVD.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Contest - "Doctor Zhivago" on DVD or Blu-ray

Another week, another contest for all fans of free stuff everywhere.

As mentioned on this post of May 3rd, we’re giving away a copy of director David Lean’s classic “Doctor Zhivago”, in your choice of either DVD or Blu-ray. A new restoration has been released for the 45th anniversary of the film, and this package has a lot of extra goodies.

First, to enter the contest, between now and Thursday noon, Eastern Time, when we pick the winner, just leave a comment below stating you want the movie. That’s all you have to do. The name is drawn out of a hat. Come back Thursday to see if you’ve won, and if you did, email me at:

...with the address to which you’d like your DVD or Blu-ray to be sent. Neither the address nor your name will be published. I’ll contact the folks who are donating the prize, and they’ll ship it to you directly.

This new release of the film by Warner Home Video is stunning. Of course, you’ll probably remember the film was stunning to begin with, and there are so many images from it we may recall long after we have digested the love story, the political angles, and the tempestuous backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

My gosh, the color. The time spent on images in this film is luxury to enjoy. Today we seem to be rushed by the director to hustle the plot along, like an irritable waiter who keeps showing up at your table to move you out of the restaurant as quickly as possible. This film is like an eight-course meal with servants standing silently in the background refilling your wine glass so discreetly that you barely notice. Despite the enormity of the events in the film, there is something relaxing about it.

Oh, yes, we have an Overture. We have an “Entr’acte”, with that haunting, lovely, refrain of “Lara’s Theme”, theme. The snowflakes on the windowpane, the distant snow-capped Ural Mountains burst upon us as we emerge from a dark train tunnel. The delight in observation (which in turn makes us observe) of the lead character, Dr. Zhivago, played soulfully by Omar Sharif. That eyes-filling-with-tears as he watches the street massacre below, and the horror is reflected in his face, but we are barely subjected to any graphic images of violence, only the meaning of it. His horror, and his joys, both are wordless. And the balalaika that follows him like a conscience.

A shaft of sunlight glowing through a dark forest, and a vase of immense sunflowers that drop their petals. A field of yellow daffodils. This is a beautiful, beautiful film.

And how interesting that something so ethereal about a bloody revolution whose consequences were felt by the entire world for decades afterwards could be filmed with such empathy during the Cold War. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that “Doctor Zhivago” was shown in Russia, and the novel by Boris Pasternak, who was awarded a Nobel Prize, was published there in 1988, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The special features of this 45th anniversary release alone are worth it. There is a documentary, “Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration Part 1 & 2” (all-new production). Also: commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean, and “Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic” which has candid reminiscences by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Geraldine Chaplin. This is the sort of nuts-and-bolts behind the scenes stuff I love, and it is fascinating. They even explain how they achieved the sunflowers dropping their petals moment.

Eleven vintage featurettes are included, among them New York press interviews with Omar Sharif and with Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin’s screen test. This is really quite a comprehensive package on this film, and provides such terrific background and context for your viewing of a beautifully restored “Doctor Zhivago.”

Let the contest begin.

FTC Disclosure: a review copy of the CD, and the contest prize, are provided by Warner Home Video.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Welcome back for the drawing of the CD of Carl Davis’ “Napoleon” score. Please see Monday’s post for a review of this CD.

And the winner is….


Congratulations, John, and please email me at:

…with the address to which you’d like the CD to be sent. Neither the address nor your name will be published. I’ll contact the folks who are donating the CD, and they’ll ship you your prize directly.

Come back next week for another contest, this time for a DVD.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Carl Davis Score of "Napoleon" - CD Contest

This week we’ve got a contest for a unique CD. More about that in a minute, but first the contest rules:

Between now and Thursday noon, Eastern Time, when we pick the winner, just leave a comment below stating you want the CD. That’s pretty much it. The name is drawn out of a hat. Come back Thursday to see if you’ve won, and if you did, email me at:

...with the address to which you’d like the CD to be sent. Neither the address nor your name will be published. I’ll contact the folks who are donating the CD, and they’ll ship you your prize directly.

Now, about that CD.

It is the vibrant Carl Davis score of “Napoleon”. This masterful silent screen epic is rarely seen (though is a popular topic of discussion by film buffs of the silent era), and this is due to a number of interesting circumstances. The film has a tangled history, and to some degree, so does the score of the modern release.

The film is the work of Abel Gance, one of the most talented filmmakers not only in French cinema but in the history of movie making. M. Gance is responsible for innovations on what would later be standard in the use of color, wide screen, and even hand-held techniques. He invented the triptych process using three cameras and three projectors which was not replicated by anyone until Cinerama came along 25 years later.

The film had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1921, in a shorter three hours and 40-minute version of what was meant originally to be a six-episode biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. A another edited version was re-released in 1927 with a score by Arthur Honegger. From the beginning, money and artistic concerns battled over how this story was to be told and how it would be seen. A later release in the US in the 1930s carved it down to 80 minutes.

Decades passed and occasional forays into archives and personal collections were made to cobble together the film as it might have been originally intended. This was finally accomplished by film historian Kevin Brownlaw, who released a five-hour version to reconstruct Abel Gance’s masterpiece. It was viewed in 1979 in Colorado. Gance himself came from France to see it.

Director Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed, he presented it at Radio City Music Hall, and interest in this classic was revived. It was shown also in London in 1980, and it was for this presentation that Carl Davis was commission to write the score.

At this point we arrive at one of those head-scratching circumstances where the losers are the fans. Mr. Coppola’s showing in New York of the film was accompanied by a score written by his father, Carmine Coppola. Because he owns the distributor rights in the US for the four-hour version of the film, Francis Ford Coppola will not allow a release of the DVD unless it has the Carmine Coppola score. Meanwhile the Carl Davis score is what accompanies Brownlaw’s film, which underwent more restoration with added footage in 1983 and in 2000. This version of the film is what is seen when released in the Europe. I don’t know if a DVD of the Brownlaw restoration will be available in the US anytime soon, as the legal issues with the Francis Ford Coppola version remain unresolved.

I can’t compare the Coppola score with the Davis score because I have not heard Mr. Coppola’s work, though I know film critics have made comparisons. I won’t refer to any here, but if you do a Google search, I’m sure you’ll come up with plenty of opinions.

My own review of the Carl Davis score on this CD from the Carl Davis Collection, published by Threefold Music Ltd of the UK, is that it is a striking and uplifting composition that is a perfect blend of history and drama, which I suspect is what Gance intended in his tale of Napoleon.

Mr. Davis draws upon music of the time period, from Beethoven’s Eroica, to portions of works by Mozart and Haydn, to traditional songs of the French Revolution. There is also, of course, a recurring complement of horns reprising La Marseillaise. The result is stirring, and reflective of the Napoleonic era. It is a symphony set to screen, which is unlike what we usually expect from silent film scores, even some new scores for restored classics that rely heavily on scene-by-scene musical depictions that are more like melodic sound effects accompanying the film than a complimentary score that could stand apart from it. Mr. Davis’ score of “Napoleon” is just such a creation.

His thorough research and melding of historic refrains to modern scores has been a good part of his long career. You may have heard his compositions and arrangements before in such restored silent classics as “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925, restored 1996) reviewed in this previous blog post, “The Crowd” (1928, restored 1981) reviewed in this previous blog post, “The Wind” (1928, restored 1983), and several other classics, as well as modern film and television productions.
For your chance at winning a copy of this CD, an abridged version of the 5-hour Carl Davis score of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, just let me know in the comments section.

FTC Disclosure: a review copy of the CD was provided by the US distributor of this product, Naxos of America, Inc. of Franklin, Tennessee.

Have a look below at a couple of snippets of the film by Abel Gance.

# 1

# 2

Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Doctor Zhivago" 45th Anniversary Release - Preview/Contest

A couple of days ago Warner Home Video released a new state-of-the-art restoration on Blu-ray disc and DVD to mark the 45th anniversary of "Doctor Zhivago" (1965).  Director David Lean’s romantic epic film on the lives and intrigues of people at different levels of society thrown together during the timultuous Russian Revolution is now remastered and digitally restored.  Included in both the premium Blu-ray book and the 45th Anniversary DVD edition is brand new bonus content, including a new documentary on the enduring legacy of the film.

Beginning Monday, May 17th, we'll be conducing a contest to give away a copy of "Doctor Zhivago", in the winner's choice of either Blu-ray or DVD, in cooperation with Warner Home Video.  The drawing will be held on Thursday, May 20th.  More later about that.

First, a bit more about the film:
The 1965 film captures the essence of Boris Pasternak’s Russian novel of remarkable passion and sweeping grandeur, presenting an intimate and deeply emotional story against the enormous backdrop of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

Omar Sharif stars in the title role of Doctor Zhivago, portraying the surgeon-poet over a half-century period. Zhivago, who is married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), an aristocratic girl with whom he raises a family, is also in love with Lara (Julie Christie), a nurse whose life has been destroyed by tragedy. Repeatedly brought together and separated from each woman by war and revolution, Zhivago is torn apart by conflict. He loves Tonya deeply but his poetic soul belongs to Lara. Much like his beloved country, Zhivago’s spirit becomes battered by the devastation of war as he struggles to maintain his individualism in the face of overwhelming odds.

New Special Features:

Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration Part 1 & 2 (all-new production)
Additional Special Features:

• Commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean

(wife of David Lean) Part 1 & 2

• Introduction by Omar Sharif

• Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic

• 11 Vintage Featurettes

• Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean

• David Lean's Film of Doctor Zhivago

• Moscow in Madrid

• Pasternak

• New York Press Interviews Omar Sharif

• New York Press Interviews Julie Christie

• Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test

For now, here is just a little something to whet your appetite.  (Don't forget to scroll to the black box at the bottom of this blog page and pause the music on the usual soundtrack.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Trains in the Movies

This Saturday, May 8th, is the 3rd annual National Train Day, so to celebrate we cast a nod to the importance train travel has had in old movies. As you probably know, the Golden Age of Hollywood was also the era in which most people moved about the country by train.

Bette Davis, impatient to see her bosom buddy Miriam Hopkins, leaps from the train before it comes to a complete stop.  For more on Old Acquaintance (1943), have a look here.

When James Cagney pursues Priscilla Lane, he does it on the train.  For more on "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), have a look here.

When Harold Lloyd goes to  college, he arrives on the train.  For more on "The Freshman" (1925), have a look here.

Whether it's Alan Hale and Barbara Stanwyck behaving in an unseemly manner on a train in "Stella Dallas" (1937), or Barabara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray throwing her dead husband's body off one in "Double Indemnity" (1944), trains are so much a part of classic film because they were so much a part of American life up until the late 1950s and early 1960s when a network of highways and a generation of muscle cars made them quaint and anachronistic, if not exactly obsolete.  They have never been obsolete.  For many reasons environmental, political, and logistical, passenger train travel may one day grow to be as important as ever in many areas of the country. 

The movies found them irresistable from the start.  Here is "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). 

For more on National Train Day and the history of train travel in the US, have a look at these websites.

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