(On Cable TV, February 2019) One of my working hypotheses in my Grand Unified Theory of Hollywood is that everything was invented during the 1930s, and we’ve been running variations on a theme ever since. San Francisco is another validation of that statement, as it credibly sets up the template that later disaster movies would follow closely. Set during the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco features no less than Clark Gable as an atheistic saloon owner and gambler. Then popular singer Jeanette MacDonald is the love interest, while Spencer Tracy has an early role as a Catholic priest fit to act as the protagonist’s conscience. Much of the early film is spent showcasing the city as it existed at the turn of the century and setting up the dramatic conflicts that will be settled definitively by the earthquake. For modern viewers, there’s also another kind of suspense: How, exactly, are the filmmakers going to portray the impending disaster on-screen? Is it going to look effective to our modern CGI-jaded eyes? That question is answered convincingly two thirds of the way through with an utterly thrilling sequence in which real-world sets are split apart. It’s a long and still-impressive moment in the movie as characters scream, building crumble and even the era’s limitations in special effects technology can’t quite diminish the importance of the moment. Once the disaster is over, it’s no surprise if our atheistic character had found God and his love interest, affirming San Francisco’s Phoenix-like endurance. The slightly historical nature of the film, looking backwards twenty years, actually gives it an interesting weight that the speculative disaster films of the 1970s can’t quite match. While primitive by today’s SFX standards, I found San Francisco surprisingly enjoyable when it gets on with the show, and prescient as to how it creates a template for an entire subgenre to follow.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) For a mid-thirties production, Mutiny on the Bounty still manages to impress thanks to expansive filmmaking, a solid story and good character work. While historically dubious (read the Wikipedia entry for the latest thinking regarding the real-life incident, markedly more sympathetic to captain Blight, not to mention the sad aftermath of the mutiny), the story itself does have a certain narrative drive, and the way the film portrays the events manages to be impressive—the shot in which hundreds of Tahitians converge to the water to greet the English visitors is still remarkable today. The heart of the film remains between Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Blight—both actors hold their own. While creaky by modern standards, much of Mutiny on the Bounty can be watched effortlessly today … and that’s no small achievement for a film pushing eighty.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s nothing new under the sun and that’s even truer when it comes to Hollywood movies, but it’s still a shock to see in It Happened One Night a template for the entire subgenre of romantic comedies as they’ve been made for the past eight decades. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star as (respectively) a rich spoiler heiress and a suave roguish newspaperman stuck together on a bus ride from Florida to New York. Their initial animosity eventually become something else, which complicates an upcoming high-society wedding. We’ve all seen what happens because the basic structure of the film has been reused time and time again. Frank Capra’s direction is as sure-footed as anything else he’s done (and still rivals many modern directors), while the film’s pre-Code status makes it just a bit franker and just a bit more alluring than the following three decades of movies. It has aged remarkably well—Gable and Colbert have good chemistry, and the script is strong on dialogue and single moments. (Ah, that hitchhiking scene…) I’m not so fond of the third-act shift away from the bus, but it does lead the film to its climactic finale. As I’m discovering more and more older movies, the nineteen-thirties are earning a special place in my own version of Hollywood history—a decade where the basics of cinema had been mastered to a level still recognizable as competent today, and (for a brief period before the Hays code) increasingly willing to push the envelope of what was permissible on-screen. It Happened One Night still feels fresh and fun—I can see it being a hit with wide audiences even today.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) What a movie. What a terrific movie. While Gone with the Wind surely ranks way up the list of overexposed films (it’s still the highest-grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation—nearly everyone saw it back then), there’s a reason why it still works nearly eighty years later, even with its three-hour-plus duration, even as it expresses warm feelings toward historically repellent issues. There are a lot of ways to see the movie (as an epic family drama, as a romance, as a historical film) but I found it most effective as a character piece tracking the evolution of a young woman into a hardened life-scarred survivor. Vivien Leigh stars as the legendary Scarlett O’Hara, growing up through civil war and reconstruction from a flighty heiress to the mistress of a domain, a grieving mother and someone who will never be able to live with the love of her life. (It’s significant that Rhett Butler, her counterpart played by Clark Gable, also looms large as an oversized character, but does not significantly evolve during much of the film.) The lavish production values of the film as still amazing today, whether it’s the vivid colours (wow, those dresses), the burning of Atlanta or, more strikingly, the hideous open-air hospital scenes with what looks like thousands of extras—in high definition, the movie still amazes through its sheer visual density. As a sumptuous historical recreation, Gone with the Wind is an amazing time capsule from the thirties looking back at the eighteen-sixties—just consider that the film is now significantly closer to the American Civil War than to today. Alas, this proximity leads to a few unfortunate consequences—at times, modern viewers will feel some revulsion at the way the film excuses or regrets the Confederacy and the systemic use of slavery as an economic system. This also ties with the representation of black characters in the film—ludicrous today, but groundbreaking at the time (leading to the first-ever Academy Award given to a black actor, Hattie McDaniel). But a film doesn’t last nearly eighty years without reflecting its own era, and Gone With the Wind has endured far better than most movies of its time.