Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Howards of Virginia (1940)

“The Howards of Virginia” (1940) is one of not-very-many movies Hollywood made about the American Revolution. It’s a good effort in some respects, and fails dismally in others, but that may be not just to acting or direction. Sometimes our failure in being able to interpret a particular era in the past may be our own tenuous grasp on what it really was like. We’re not really as good at turning back the clock as we think we are. It’s just not that easy.

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.

The best performer here for my money is Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays her elder brother, the snobbish family patriarch who looks down on Grant. When the Revolution begins, he is a Tory, or would be if there were any profit in it, and he provides a fascinating contrast to Cary Grant. Mr. Hardwicke’s scenes are absorbing, and we discover many layers to this character in a way we never do with Mr. Grant’s character. Hardwicke is noble, self centered, disdainful, and ultimately tragic. So is Grant’s character, but we may find ourselves understanding Grant less and disliking him more.

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.

However, aristocratic Scott stands by her man in buckskins and may look horrified at smelly backwoodsmen, but her very acquiescence to this life seems more democratic than someone in her position would actually be. It is the first indication that we are leading to a message of how wonderfully democratic this country is, and was. It’s a nice sentiment, but largely a fairy tale.

Also, the affable Thomas Jefferson, played by Richard Carlson, who is Matt Howard’s lifelong friend was not so affable and hail-fellow-well-met in real life. This shy, reclusive man, though he wrote one of the most noble documents ever penned - The Declaration of Independence - was also an aristocrat who disdained the company of lower-born folk he saw mainly in terms of rabble. This is certainly no crime and is not unusual in anyone well born and well educated. But, we may conclude he is re-drawn here to suit our World War II -era sensibilities.

Then we come to the first disgruntled rumblings of American discontent during all the repressive taxes the Crown placed on the colonies, and we see that Cary Grant has won a seat in the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s lower legislative house, where we are treated to snippets of speeches by Thomas Paine, played by Richard Gaines. Again, just as we discussed a few weeks ago about 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 might note here, however, a difference, though a subtle difference, in the treatment of the colonial African-American experience to what we observed in “Gone with the Wind”. The servants in the grand homes of course are all slaves, and one female slave goes with Martha Scott when the newlyweds strike out for the frontier. She is even more appalled at the rough backwoods people than Miss Scott is, and looks down on them as not being “quality”.

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.

Another subplot to the film is Cary Grant’s relationships with his sons. The younger, James, played as a young man by Tom Drake, is the apple of his eye. He ignores the older one, Peyton, because Peyton was born with a foot deformity, much like his brother-in-law, Cedric Hardwicke, whom Grant despises. When the child is born and Mr. Grant first sees his baby’s deformity, he suddenly refuses to name him after his father, but adamantly insists he be given her maiden name instead, branding him as an issue from her side of the family. Grant finally bonds with his son Peyton, played by Phil Taylor, when the lad performs a heroic act as a soldier during the Revolution.

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.

Williamsburg, where parts of this movie was filmed, was the capitol of Virginia until about 1780, when the capitol was moved to Richmond, in part at the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson. The town which had contributed so much to the political and cultural heritage of Colonial Virginia sort of became a quaint, gentle, and ignored (like young Peyton Howard), hamlet until about the 1920s, when Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin of the Bruton Parish Church got together with philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to restore some of the historic buildings. We owe those two gentlemen a lot.

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.


chatchien said...

Happy Fourth of July!

I've been enjoying your Independence Day Posts and music.

Shenandoah does have a lovely melody.

I haven't seen The Howards of Virginia, but is it anything like that old play where Mary Pickford got her start in the theater, The Warrens of Virginia?

I was aghast at the casting of Cary Grant as a farmer in Virginia. Wasn't that the euphemism for Plantation and Slave Owners? But now that I think of it. Mr. Grant would have been the sort of man for the actual time and by that I mean a lower class British Born immigrant seeking to better his station and status in a way and in a country that he couldn't do in Britain. Rather like Mr. Grant in his actual life.

Perhaps the role was a little too close to Mr. Grant for him to be comfortable on screen. He didn't care to let the audience see his striving.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, chatchien. Happy 4th! The movie was based on a novel called "The Liberty Tree" by Elizabeth Page, published in 1939, the year before this film was made, so it doesn't seem to have any relation to the Mary Pickford play. It got a good review in Time Magazine of Feb. 27, 1939.

I've not read the book, but I'd like to sometime. There does seem to be a difficulty with Cary Grant in this role, but I don't know what it is or why he shouldn't have been able to play it as well as anybody else. As you say, a man of the lower class who raised himself to great success. He has a lot in common with the character. I wonder if it was his or the director's, or the writer's (or novelist's) intention to equate virility with yelling a lot. Backwoodsman as oaf. The character comes off as a cartoon, but there should be more there.

Gordon Pasha said...

Dear Jacqueline:

I know there are awards given to citizens for service to the nation under trying conditions
so you might be eligible given some of the heavy sledding involved in watching “The Howards of Virginia.” But they are all part of our film history. And your posting was better than the movie. Regional differences, Upstairs / Downstairs, Archibald in Old Virginia, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Hollywood’s attempts at showing slaves or in portraying our Revolution. Now that’s a nice Gumbo for Fourth of July.

You have left us a good account of the film. I particularly admire Cary Grant, but when he went into this mode he was difficult. I would like to say he needed a better director to rein him in, but Capra had little luck in that area (yet at least “Arsenic and Old Lace” was a farce).

Your posting set me thinking about regional characteristics and class structure. My mother’s lineage traces through the Hudson River Valley and the patroon system. So I was familiar with that region (of Drums Along the Mohawk) throughout my boyhood (early 40s). Regional characteristics of the upper New York area were more distinctive at that time than they are today. And as different as those characteristics were then, how much more so had they been yet 170 years earlier?

In my youth, in summer, we left New York and took The Hudson River Day Line up the river to Albany where I was left to spend a month or so with a lovely aunt in Troy. The trip took about nine hours on the water as I recall. But Virginia (of The Howards) was another story. When you were from the Bronx, Virginia was the very Deep South. And I knew nothing of their attitudes.

Yet evidence of the variables of regional characteristics was still around when I went into the military in 1958 and I met many from the South. And in recent times, my wife and I spend two or three months in England every year. And that old caste system is still very much in evidence in the mind set of many we meet.

I loved your reference to Upstairs / Downstairs – and I am empathetic to your regret about American television’s inability to deal with similar subjects. We rarely watch television except for baseball and the motion picture channels. (But a great exception is the now defunct series “The Wire” – available on DVD in its entirety and on Netflix. It was loved in England and virtually ignored over here.)

I like Martha Scott but I think that is based on a fond remembrance of “Our Town” that never quite carried over into her later films. “Our Town” was as much filmed theatre as a film. Martha was meant for the stage, I believe, as was Hardwicke, whose performance you correctly described. I have Hardwicke’s book (A Victorian in Orbit) in my library and within it he does not refer to “Howards.” He did not think much of film. In a postscript to the book he includes an interview section. When asked for his advice to young actors, he responded: “Try it on the dog. Dogs react splendidly.”

As to Fourth of July, I consider myself a good citizen of a patriotic nature and, as stated earlier, have served in the military. But over the years I have questioned the validity of The Fourth of July as a national holiday. On October 19, 1781 the British surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. (I was born on October 19.) On July Fourth we proclaimed our independence. On October 19 we won it. I always thought it more important to win one’s freedom than proclaim it. My entreaties to those in high stations to change the holiday have been ignored or dismissed.

And to close this circle, my wife and I attended a Holmesian seminar at William and Mary probably in the 1980s. We very much agree with your assessment; we liked Williamsburg. We were lodged in the William and Mary dormitory for two or three days during the seminar, and then lingered for a few days at The Williamsburg Inn. Talk about the caste system.

Meant to respond sooner. Best.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"I know there are awards given to citizens for service to the nation under trying conditions
so you might be eligible given some of the heavy sledding involved in watching 'The Howards of Virginia.'"

You crack me up, Gerald. I suggest blue ribbons for all of us who've slogged through the movie.

I love hearing about your boyhood trips up the Hudson. Nine hours? I would love to take that trip.

Sorry Congress has been so slow in making your birthday a national holiday. Your argument makes sense. I'll start the letter writing campaign.

I like your observations on Martha Scott and Sir Cedric. I've not read his book, but he is one of my favorites.

Regionalism is an important element in our makeup, so I don't think it'll ever be totally absent. We may not feel it so keenly as we once did, due to the homogenizing affect of TV and how much we all tend to move about the country.

Thanks again for such a splendid addition to this post.

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