Tag: Clark Gable

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)

For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?

It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.

It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?

GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.

There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.

These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.

And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.

The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).

Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.

But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.

GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Queeny: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.

The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the original odd-couple who find love in It Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas (“King” Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blanche Friderici (Zeke’s wife), Charles G Wilson (Joe Gordon)

Two contrasting people thrown together over a set period of time, at first rub each other up the wrong way but then, doncha know it, frustration turns to love and suddenly we’re nervously watching to see if a last minute complication will throw a spanner into the works. If it sounds like a classic set-up – that’s because it is. Where did you think the set-up came from? Capra’s comedy – which scooped the Big Five at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) is one of the most influential films ever made – and one of the funniest and sharpest examples of great film-making from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“Daughter escaped again, watch all roads, airports, and railway stations in Miami.” Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with daring-but-dull flying ace “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas) but her father Alexander (Walter Connolly) won’t wear it as he’s sure Westley is only after her money. So, Ellie literally jumps ship in Florida (swimming to shore from her father’s yacht, she’s got some guts that girl) and decides to make her way to New York to reunite with her husband. Hopping on a Greyhound bus to New York, she meets recently fired New York reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and, after a series of unfortunate incidents, the two of them end up penniless and travelling across America together. Will their waspish banter blossom into something else?

It Happened One Night is so delightful, as soon as its finished, you fancy skipping back and watch it again. It’s such a brilliant, sexy, romantic comedy it’s odd to think nearly everyone involved wasn’t even sure they wanted to do it. Re-named from the less catchy Night Bus (and who cares if the film actually takes place over several nights), it was rushed into production to take advantage of Colbert’s availability (she only agreed to do it if it filming took four weeks). Gable was loaned out by MGM against his will. Capra and Colbert didn’t really get in and screenwriter Robert Riskin re-wrote the script on set. If you ever needed proof adversity leads to a classic, take a look at this.

It Happened One Night beautifully charts how two mismatched people can be surprised by how much in common they have. Both are, in their own way, fiercely independent. Ellie will marry the man she wants, and hang the consequences. Peter gets the spike permanently because his unique way of doing things doesn’t fit with his editor. They are both quick-witted people with dreams who don’t suffer fools. At first she thinks he’s smug (and in a way he is), he feels she’s entitled (after all its day two before she asks his name). But they bounce off each other from the start, each an equal match for wit (not to mention they both clearly fancy the pants off each immediately).

What’s going to bring the “walls of Jericho” tumbling down between these two? Forced into sharing a hotel room at night, Peter astounds Ellie’s expectations by throwing a sheet up between them, their own little wall of Jericho. Colbert judges perfectly this scene how Ellie’s exasperation also mixes with something pretty close to disappointment. After all she’s already cuddled up to Peter, sleeping on the bus – and Peter in no way objected. Later, in a mirroring hotel room scene Peter will speak openly about how he’s longed for a woman with freedom and spirit (and Gable does this with a beautiful wistfulness) – exactly the qualities he has seen grow in Ellie over their days together.

What works wonderfully is how naturally this relationship becomes first a friendship, then something deeper. Improvising a marital argument, pretending to be a plumber and his wife to put detectives off her scent, they complement each other perfectly. What’s fabulous about this scene, is that (to their surprise) they are equally delighted by how smart and witty the other is. Their gleeful giggling is not only very sweet, but also the start of a new chapter in their relationship. The scene culminates with one of the few moments of intimacy on film involving clothes going on, as Peter helps Ellie button up her blouse.

What’s endearing about them – helped by Riskin’s sparkling dialogue – is how they settle into ‘roles’ and eagerly bounce off each other. Peter increasingly effects a parody of self-importance, claiming to be a world expert on everything from donot dunking to hitchhiking. Ellie gleefully punctures his grandiose claims, but enjoys playing up to her own image of the heiress, at sea in the real world. This is how real people fall in love – and the film is confident enough to have them exchange private jokes we can’t hear on the backseat of a car. It’s gloriously romantic because it feels true.

Gable and Colbert’s chemistry is scintillating. Both are supremely funny, but also grounded. When they lark about they feel like real-life sweethearts. Colbert gives Ellie a wonderful vulnerability under the self-entitlement. She’s snappy and quick-witted but confused and even a bit frightened by her growing feelings. Gable’s easy charm also has a slight chip on his shoulder: but he’s also laid-back and more than willing to look silly, proud but self-aware with it. He’s also a hugely adept physical comedian (his demonstration of how to hitch-hike is hilarious).

Moments have passed into film lore. Gable’s extraordinarily silly hitch-hiking routine, cars streaming past, until Colbert flashes a bit of leg. This is a beautifully staged scene, a cheeky bit of sexuality a brilliant punchline to an extended showcase for Gable’s comic timing and Colbert’s reactive skills and composure. The dialogue exchanges between the two are superbly delivered. The film was a massive sleeper hit – it even has one of the best examples of reverse product placement, when the reveal Gable’s character didn’t wear an undershirt allegedly led to sales of that garment plummeting.

The direction from Capra is spot-on, classic Hollywood but mixed with some beautiful framing and some dynamic camera movements, including some lovely tracking shots particularly through the bus (Capra’s visual direction in a confined space here doesn’t get enough credit). Capra also ensures we don’t forget this was the time of depression: money is tight for everyone, many of those on the bus are desperate for work and the out-of-touch affluence of Ellie rightly raises heckles.

Above all, Capra creates a hugely sweet romance – with lashings of sexy chemistry but not a jot of sex. Wipes and fast transitions keep the pace up. The dialogue pacing is perfect. He uses light wonderfully: in the two hotel room scenes, light carefully divides up and then unifies our two leads, dancing off their Ellie’s eyes and reflecting how they are beginning to see each other in a new light. It has a reputation as a screwball comedy, but really its a carefully paced character comedy, where Capra lets the relationship flourish organically from scene-to-scene (only Peter’s “hold-the-press” editor and irritating fellow bus rider Shapely – the inspiration for Bugs Bunny – are characters who could walk into screwball unchanged).

Above all, he draws fresh, relaxed and emotional performances from the two leads. The bond between them has been so comfortably formed – and resonates so strongly – that the film can get away with being possibly the only romantic comedy in history where the couple never kiss and don’t share the screen in the final act. It’s a film where two characters bantering and sharing heartfelt truths, sleeping in separate beds on opposite sides of a sheet has more sexiness and emotion to it than a world of rumpy-pumpy. It Happened One Night is just about the perfect romantic comedy, oft-imitated but never-bettered. You’ll want to watch it again as soon as it finishes.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Laughton and Gable go head to head in Mutiny on the Bounty

Director: Frank Lloyd

Cast: Charles Laughton (Captain Bligh), Clark Gable (Lt Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (Roger Byam), Herbert Mundin (Smith), Eddie Quillan (Ellison), Dudley Digges (Bacchus), Donald Crisp (Burkitt), Henry Stephenson (Sir Joseph Banks), Francis Lister (Captain Nelson), Spring Byington (Mrs Byam), Movita Castaneda (Tehani), Mamo Clark (Maimiti), Byron Russell (Quintal), David Torrance (Lord Hood)

“They respect but one law – the law of fear…”. So hisses Charles Laughton as the definitively monsterish Captain Bligh in this Oscar-winning version of the most famous mutiny ever. It’s the quintessential adventure on the high-seas motion picture (never mind that the actual ship used could only get a few miles off the coast), but it’s also a feast of good acting and Hollywood class: the only picture to get three nominations for Best Actor, as well as the last Best Picture winner to only win one Oscar. It cemented the ideas around Bligh and Fletcher for generations.

Heading out on a two-year voyage in 1787 to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, the Bounty sets sail from Portsmouth with several members of the crew freshly press-ganged. In command is self-made man Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), while his second-in-command is gentleman Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). A pair of fine sailors, the two of them are separated only by their methods. Fletcher is a man of the people, a motivator with a firm hand. Bligh is a man with just a firm hand, who never uses a dozen lashes of the crew when two dozen will do. Fletcher becomes more and more alienated by Bligh’s ruthless methods.

Frank Lloyd bought the rights to a novel that fictionalised the mutiny (introducing Roger Byam, a fictional version of Peter Heywood who later become a Post-Captain in the navy) with the intention of directing and playing Bligh himself. Fortunately he was persuaded to step aside on the acting front for Laughton, who is seized the part with relish.  Shoulders scrunched and neck jutting his head forward, with his lip curled, this is a Bligh constantly on the look-out for offence, a martinet whose anger stems from a self-loathing within. A chippy middle-class boy made good, he’s determined to enforce the letter of the law, and while a bully with no empathy he’s not exactly a bad man, just a bad captain. Laughton’s performance simmers with bitterness and a relish for being obeyed.

He makes a neat contrast with Clark Gable at his matinee idol finest. Worried about taking the role because it demanded the shaving of his lucky moustache (no facial hair in the navy), Gable gifts Laughton the flashier role to play the decent hero with only the best for his fellow man at heart. Gable’s Christian is decent, understanding, a natural leader who has a firm eye for justice. Not even bothering with the British accent, but settling for a mid-Atlantic ease, Gable is the Hollywood superstar to his core, his Christian the quintessential romantic ideal.

Between the two of them runs Franchot Tone’s Midshipman Roger Byam. Tone is the often forgotten third nominee for Best Actor, but he has in many ways the trickier part, which he handles with aplomb: the naïve young man who wants to serve his captain and his country, but also understands that his captain is not a man of justice. Tone gets the film’s highlight, a final speech to the court martial that helps make everything turn out alright, but his tortured pleading for justice and moral righteousness is delivered with a humble and effective forthrightness.

Lloyd has these fine performances (plus some great work from Mundin, Crisp, Digges, Quillan and others as assorted ship’s crew) and sets them all out perfectly on a film that captures the heart of the epic. The ship is brilliantly constructed and assembled, and Lloyd’s film reconstructs everything from day-to-day travails on sea to the impact of storms. The mutiny when it comes is shot with an Eisensteinesque immediacy, while he also manages to shoot Tahiti with a dreamlike paradise sheen. He paces perfectly the growing sense of tension and unresolvable fury between Bligh and Christian. 

And he certainly gets a brilliant sense of the cruelty and sustained violence of Bligh’s rule on the boat, as floggings come thundering down on the backs the sailors – often for the very meanest of reasons. A keelhauling (despite one moment of laughably bad model work) is brutal in its harshness. Bligh’s first act on boat is to flog a dead man (after all death doesn’t wipe out the need for punishment) and he goes from there. The film does give time to admire Bligh’s seamanship – and reconstructs surprisingly well his awe-inspiring open boat trip over 4,000 miles to take him and loyalists back to a safe port. Meanwhile Christian heads for the safety of Tahiti, a blissful series of images of our decent sailors enjoying homespun pleasures and hot Tahitian wives.

Of course it’s not actually what happened really. Bligh was a difficult, priggish and rather cold person with low personal skills but he wasn’t the monster he seems here. Christian had a certain aristocratic pull over the men, but he was also probably far more twitchy, young and stupid than the assured, experienced sailor he is here. Bligh’s ship wasn’t the bastion of cruelty it is here (punishments seemed in line with the rest of the navy, or even a little less according to the log), but Bligh’s lack of understanding of how men work and his endless drive, matched with his sailors’ seduction by the charms of an easy life on Tahiti perhaps led to the outbreak. Either way Bligh definitely didn’t command the HMS Pandorato hunt the sailors down, nor did the investigation into the matter end with him being snubbed as a wrong ‘un by Lord Hood.

But hey, if you know that this is legend printed as fact it’s fine. Because Lloyd’s film is still superbly entertaining, has three excellent performances among a fine ensemble cast and while its version of Bligh may be a monster made up, Laughton invests him with enough humanity and self-loathing you’ll despair at his poor choices as much as you’ll hate his cruelty. Prime Hollywood entertainment, perfect for any time.