Gone with the Wind (1939)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #41

The most magnificent picture ever!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 233 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1940) | PG (1988)
MPAA: G (1971)

Original Release: 15th December 1939 (premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
US Release: 17th January 1940
UK Release: 18th April 1940 (premiere)
First Seen: TV, c.2005

Stars
Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Vivien Leigh (Fire Over England, A Streetcar Named Desire)
Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage, 49th Parallel)
Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dark Mirror)
Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat, Song of the South)

Director
Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe)

Screenwriter
Sidney Howard (Arrowsmith, Dodsworth)

Based on
Gone with the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

The Story
The American South, 1861: wealthy teenager Scarlett O’Hara spends her days attending parties and flirting with her many admirers, though she only really has eyes for her neighbour, Ashley. After he declares his intention to marry his cousin Melanie, a furious Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a practically-minded gent who only serves his own interests. When the American Civil War breaks out, Scarlett has to apply her manipulative nature to survival, as down the years she engages in a love/hate relationship with the similarly-tempered Rhett.

Our Heroes
Scarlett O’Hara is the perennial belle of the ball in her Southern community, until the American Civil War comes and she’s forced to grow up. Her innate selfishness and tendency to manipulate people (or try to, at least) helps her survive the conflict in more-or-less one piece. Equally self concerned is Rhett Butler, a gentleman not afraid to stand up to Scarlett, which is why they clash, and why they’re probably made for one another.

Our Villains
Those damn Unionists, with their trying to get rid of slavery and everything!

Best Supporting Character
Hattie McDaniel is memorable, likeable, and Oscar-winning as the O’Haras’ maid, Mammy. Whether her performance was a good thing for the African American community or just an ‘Uncle Tom’ is another matter.

Memorable Quote
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — Rhett Butler

Memorable Scene
In the streets of Atlanta, Scarlett comes across the casualties from the battle. First we only see her face as she comes upon a shocking sight. Then it cuts to a long-shot: Scarlett stood by some soldiers, a couple of wounded men on the ground before her. The camera tracks back as Scarlett walks forward, gradually revealing the field of wounded soldiers she’s walking among. It continues to pull back, up into the sky, for a full 55 seconds, the injured stretching as far as the eye can see as a damaged Confederate flag flutters into view in the foreground.

Technical Wizardry
The Technicolor photography by Ernest Haller is absolutely gorgeous, and looks better than ever nowadays thanks to new restoration techniques developed in 2004 (12 years ago?! Where does time go?) That restoration is where the real wizardry lies. Gone with the Wind was shot with Technicolor’s three-strip process, in which a prism split the light entering the camera into its green, red and blue parts, which were each exposed on a strip of black-and-white film. These strips were then dyed the appropriate colour, before being combined onto a new film to create the final full-colour print. Naturally this process was liable to human error: misalign one of the strips by even the slightest amount and you get errors; small and almost unnoticeable, maybe, but less than perfection. In 2004, they went back to the original three strips and, using complicated new computer programs, realigned them from scratch. This perfect alignment revealed details that have always been on the film but would never have been seen before, meaning these movies (they also did it for the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Adventures of Robin Hood) literally looked better than they ever had. Magic.

Letting the Side Down
There are a raft of criticisms that can be levelled at Gone with the Wind, from its depiction of black characters, to making the South seem not so bad, to the faithfulness of its adaptation (too much). The second half is certainly less focused and less memorable than the first, but the whole overcomes that, for me.

Making of
The search for an actress to play the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara is legendary — it was even dramatised in an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1980. In all it lasted two years, including an open casting call that interviewed 1,400 unknowns (useless for casting, great for publicity), and the formal screen-testing of 31 actresses, including the likes of Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more. In the end, it of course went to a young British actress, then unknown in America, called Vivien Leigh. The rest is screen history.

Next time…
Fans and filmmakers alike tried to get Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel until her death in 1949. In the ’70s, her brother agreed a deal with MGM and Universal under which a novel would be written and simultaneously adapted into a film. Despite a 775-page manuscript being produced, the deal fell apart. Numerous sequel novels have been published, and in 1994 one of these, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, was adapted into a miniseries starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett and Timothy Dalton as Rhett, with a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, John Gielgud, and Ann-Margret. Apparently it’s not very good.

Awards
8 Oscars (Picture, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Director, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing)
1 Honorary Award from AMPAS (for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”)
1 Technical Achievement Award from AMPAS (for being “pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment”)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Clark Gable), Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects)

What the Critics Said in 1939
“There has never been a picture like David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind. It is so true to Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War, as it was fought in and around Atlanta, that the film is of the same epic quality as the book. […] Vivien Leigh, the little English girl imported to play the role of Scarlett, gives a magnificent performance. No other actress in Hollywood, or on the New York stage, could have come close to equalling it. […] She is pert and beautiful, lacking in erudition but the possessor of all the arts and allure of the vital female. She is quick-tempered, selfish, untruthful, sturdy and wilful as a lioness. No attempt has been made to gloss over Scarlett’s weaknesses and sins. As she is, she dominates the picture from its gay and light-hearted beginning to its tragic close.” — Kate Cameron, New York Daily News

What the Critics Said in 1973
“The most interesting way to consider GWTW today is in comparison with the film that may eventually surpass it in profits, The Godfather. Look at the similarities. Both originated in best-selling American novels. Both are very long. Both are about predators. Both are ultra-American yet are very closely allied to Europe (Walter Scott and Sicily). And, most important, both live within codes of honor, and both codes are romances. William R. Taylor has shown, in Cavalier and Yankee, that the ‘Walter Scott’ antebellum South was largely a literary fabrication, concocted at the time, not retrospectively; as for The Godfather, our newspapers show us daily that ‘They Only Kill Each Other’ is just another escape hatch to allow us to blink facts. ‘Us,’ by the way, means the world, not just the United States, since the whole world flocks to both films. And that’s interesting, too, because it leads to a difference, not a likeness. In a new age, when the ‘realistic’ Godfather is packing them in, the romantic GWTW is still popular. There’s a crumb of comfort in that: at least culture is still more pluralist than some of our propagandists would have us believe.” — Stanley Kauffmann, The Atlantic

What the Critics Said in 2015
“Its stereotype of happy slaves and kindly masters has never been more wince-inducing […] But no one watches Gone with the Wind for historical accuracy. What keeps us coming back is four-hours of epic romance in gorgeous Technicolor. Slavery, the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, a street knee-deep in dead soldiers—all just a backdrop to the main event, Scarlett ’n’ Rhett. The feminist jury is still out on Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nothing but a serial husband-thief? Or a resilient modern woman doing what she can to survive? You decide.” — Cath Clarke, Time Out

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last. Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. […] Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s ‘like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail’.” — Three Rows Back

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I briefly reviewed Gone with the Wind after a re-watch way back in 2007, when I assessed that “the direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease. It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made.”

Verdict

Last week I wrote about the enduring mass popularity of The Godfather, and here’s another case in point. Gone with the Wind may not rack up the ratings in the same circles as Coppola’s opus, but it has consistently been voted America’s most favourite movie, and its numerous massively successful re-releases mean that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a story spanning many years and many miles, passing by historical events in the process. However, at its core it’s the story of a tumultuous romance between two people, who may love each other or may hate each other, but who, with their unique, selfish, manipulative perspectives, are surely perfect for each other.

#42 will be… #42 will be… #42 will be…

Of Human Bondage (1934)

2016 #68
John Cromwell | 83 mins | download (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is, per Wikipedia, generally agreed to be his masterpiece, and regarded as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th Century. I’ve never read it, but I’m going to begin by recapping its plot (again courtesy of Wikipedia), the relevance of which will become clear after. Spoilers abound, should you be so concerned.

So, Maugham’s novel tells the life story of Philip Carey, a boy with a club foot who is orphaned and sent to live with his aunt and uncle. They quickly dispatch him to boarding school, where he struggles to to fit in due to his disability. Although groomed for an Oxford education, Philip insists on travelling to Germany, where he eventually takes an apprenticeship. Again he fails to fit in, his co-workers resenting him for being a gentleman. On a business trip to Paris, he decides to quit his job and become an art student. A fellow student falls in love with him; he doesn’t realise, and she eventually commits suicide.

(I know, you came here for a film review, not a plot summary, but bear with me.)

Realising he’ll never make it as an artist, Philip returns to England, eventually deciding to enter medicine. While struggling as a student, he meets a waitress, Mildred, who he falls in love with. She leaves him heartbroken when she announces she’s marrying another man. Philip begins seeing an author, but when Mildred returns, pregnant and unmarried, he breaks off the relationship and begins to support Mildred. Despite his kindness, she falls for one of Philip’s friends and runs off with him. Later she returns, now a single mother, and Philip takes her in again. This time she makes advances on him, which he rejects, so she destroys his belongings and disappears. Eventually he meets her again, when she’s in search of his medical opinion. She has contracted syphilis from working as a prostitute, but rejects Philip’s advice to quit. Her ultimate fate remains unknown.

(Nearly done…)

Meanwhile, Philip is left penniless by poor investments, and unable to complete his education. He’s taken in by the family of a patient, who find him a job at a department store, which he hates, although his talent for art earns him a promotion. After his uncle dies, the inheritance Philip gains allows him to return to his medical tuition and finally become a doctor. He takes a temporary placement at a hospital, where a senior doctor takes a shine to him and offers a stake in his practice. Philip declines. On a summer holiday with the patient who took him in earlier, he meets one of the man’s daughters, Sally, who likes him. She winds up pregnant, so Philip abandons his plans to travel the world, deciding to marry her and accept the doctor’s partnership offer after all. It turns out the pregnancy was a false alarm, but he decides to settle down anyway.

Phew! What a life.

All of that plays out over 700 pages. How do you adapt it into an 80-minute movie? The answer, at least for RKO in the ’30s, is that you cut most of it out.

The film begins in Paris, with Philip (Leslie Howard) being told he’ll never make it as an artist. He instantly decides to become a medical student, during which time he meets Mildred (Bette Davis). From there, the rest of the film follows the plot described in the second paragraph, albeit with some notable modifications (which I’ll come to later), with parts of the third paragraph (the patient, his daughter, abandoning travel for marriage) surfacing during the third act.

As I said, I’ve never read the novel, but it strikes me this is less “an adaptation” and more “a partial adaptation”. I’m not sure how Maugham fans feel about that. Even more surprising, at least to me, is that it seems no one’s ever attempted a more faithful retelling. There were two more film adaptations, but the last of those was 52 years ago and, from a quick glance at some plot descriptions, it sounds more like they’re remakes of this film than fresh adaptations of the novel. Considering the book is so acclaimed, it’s a wonder someone like the BBC has never given it the miniseries treatment, especially considering it’s been so long since the last film.

It would probably withstand a new treatment, too, because this version is not exactly highly acclaimed. Not that it’s a bad film, but there is only one real reason to watch it: Bette Davis, giving the performance that made her a star. She overcomes a terrible cockney accent (we’re talking Dick Van Dyke-level bad) to map out the sad decline of Mildred, starting out as a rude and dismissive waitress (it’s hard to see what Philip sees in her, but he’s a bit of a drip so we’re not exactly on his side), slipping to a struggling single mother desperately throwing herself at her one-time admirer, to a final terrible state: gaunt, dead-eyed, looking like she’s almost rotting away before our eyes. Maybe it’s not as gruesome as that sounds — this is a ’30s drama, not The Walking Dead — but it’s still striking.

In the film it’s not syphilis that does for her, but tuberculosis, and prostitution is never mentioned, or even really alluded to. The changes were no doubt due to the infamous Production Code. (There are paintings of naked French women all over Philip’s apartment, though, but I guess that counts as Art. Sadly, there’s no meta-funny dialogue about painting anyone like one of his French girls.) Of Human Bondage is often labelled as a Pre-Code film — as coming from that narrow era between the Code being invented and anyone seriously bothering to apply it. The latter came about in 1934, when an amendment to the Code stated that any film released after July 1st 1934 had to receive a certificate of approval before it could be released. Of Human Bondage premiered on June 28th, which I guess is why it gets labelled a Pre-Code film, but it went on wide release from July 20th, so fell under the Code’s new remit after all. The print held by the Library of Congress (used for the US Blu-ray release) even has the Code certificate at the start (it’s #53, if you’re curious).

Anyway, back to Mildred: her final degraded state is one of two parts that really mark Davis’ performance out. The other is a monologue delivered after Philip finally rejects her, a screaming force of nature that tears off the screen. Part of its effectiveness lies in the contrast to Davis’ work in the film up to that point, which has been calmer and emotionally reticent, her feelings concealed from Philip because, as it turns out, she has none for him. When she bursts forth with a tumult of fury, an explosive anger based in her lost ability to manipulate this weak man, it’s both a surprise and entirely expected of her selfish character.

When Davis is off screen, it feels like the film is waiting for her to return. Her arc aside, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it damp squib of a drama — there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not all that engaging. Howard has definitely been better; his romance with Sally arrives too late to have much emotional weight, though it’s easy to believe he could fall in love with Frances Dee at first sight.

More interesting than the plot of the film is the behind-the-scenes story, which brings us back round to Davis. At the time she was a contract player at Warner Bros, and feeling her career was going nowhere. Of Human Bondage had been rejected by some major actresses due to Mildred’s distinct unlikeability, but Davis saw it as an opportunity. She begged Jack L. Warner to lend her to RKO, which he resisted because he believed it would tarnish her image. However, he ultimately relented when Warners wanted an actress from RKO (Irene Dunne for Sweet Adeline, if you’re interested), and because he believed she would fail. Obviously that didn’t happen, much to the chagrin of Warner executives, who who embarrassed by one of their actresses having such success in a rival studio’s film. When there was talk of her winning an Oscar, Jack Warner began a campaign to discourage Academy members voting for her. At the time the vote counting was handled internally by the Academy itself, so Warner was able to get his way, successfully keeping her off the nominations. However, outrage by voters led to a write-in campaign. Davis ultimately placed third, but the effects were longer lasting: write-in votes were banned, and independent firm Price Waterhouse were hired to manage the voting next year — a job they still do today.

That might make quite a good film, actually; the kind of thing that might win some Oscars…

Award-winning or not, Davis’ performance is the main reason to watch Of Human Bondage. Maybe the novel is a great work, but the film is little more than adequate, with one exception. It may take a while to get past that accent, plus the addition of some dramatic fuel to allow Davis to catch light, but when she does it’s clear how this was a star-making turn.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

L’Atalante (1934)

2015 #138
Jean Vigo | 85 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | France / French | PG

The only feature-length work of director Jean Vigo (though Zéro de conduite just qualifies for AMPAS’s definition of feature-length, being 41 minutes) before he died tragically young at 29, L’Atalante has been acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

It wasn’t always thus. It was not well received at first, leading to a tumultuous release history. Previews were so poor that the distributor cut 20 minutes and released it as Le chaland qui passe, the title of a popular song at the time, which was of course added to the soundtrack. It translates as The Passing Barge, which is a very apt moniker, at least. Nonetheless, it was still a commercial failure. In 1940 it was partially restored, and after World War 2 its reputation began to be rehabilitated by critics, including becoming a favourite of the French New Wave directors. It was more thoroughly restored in 1990, and then again in 2001, bringing the film as close to its original form as possible.

Personally, my view hews closer to the original reception. Reportedly a French distributor called it “a confused, incoherent, wilfully absurd, long, dull, commercially worthless film,” while critics called it “amateurish, self-indulgent and morbid.” OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but there are nuggets of truth in there.

It boils down to a relationship drama, about a couple so in love that they married in haste and now must learn how to live together and reaffirm their love in a new context. That story is told with some asides to barge life that seem (at least to me, on a first viewing) wholly unrelated, but in themselves are frequently more entertaining, thanks primarily to the performance of Michel Simon as the barge’s older first mate.

The romance is told in a way many describe as “poetic”, which seems to me to be something of a euphemism for “obliquely”. There are certainly poetic shots or sequences, like Jean’s dive where he sees a vision of Juliette, but the actual narrative is more social realist — low-key, and not spelt out or expounded upon for our benefit.

At one time, L’Atalante must have been visionary, groundbreaking, and revelatory to both critics and other filmmakers. Over eight decades on, however, whatever was then new has been subsumed by filmmaking in general; it has become familiar, or been better employed by filmmakers who were finessing rather than experimenting. L’Atalante may well be a significant work in the history of film, and for that reason may once have been considered one of the greats (and still is by some), but for me, now, it doesn’t have enough merit as a work in its own right.

3 out of 5

L’Atalante was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Another Thin Man (1939)

2014 #129
W.S. Van Dyke II | 98 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

Another Thin ManHusband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) — now with a baby in tow — are once again coerced into investigating a crime when the manager of Nora’s estate fears a dismissed employee is plotting murder.

As per usual, a complex web of lies and deception unfurls, enlivened by the comic teasing between our leads. The baby prompts an unlikeable subplot about a bunch of ex-cons throwing a party for the detective who put them away (as you do), but it does aid a somewhat farcical climax. The rest of the movie offers the series’ trademark delights.

4 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

After the Thin Man (1936)

2014 #124
W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

‘Thin Man’ Thursday

William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in 14 films together between 1934 and 1947, and the most famous of these are a series of detective films that started life as a B-movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, before earning multiple Oscar nominations and enough popularity to inspire multiple sequels, a spin-off TV series, and more. That film, of course, is The Thin Man.

Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and his well-to-do wife, who are trying to enjoy the high life but are regularly dragged in to investigating murders, mainly thanks to her curiosity and his crime-solving genius. Special mention must also be made for the couple’s dog, Asta, a wire fox terrier who was so popular he was paid many times more than your average movie dog, and whose role only increases as the series continues — he even has a romantic subplot in the second film.

The films on the whole are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads than they are with the mysteries, which are so speedily intricate as to barely be worth following — just accepting what Nick tells you and going along with it may be the order of the day. They all have the air of Agatha Christie-esque parlour games more than genuine criminal undertakings, which of course means they make for splendid entertainment.

Six films were produced in all, over the course of 13 years — rather the opposite to most of these ’30s/’40s detective series, which were more likely to churn out 13 movies in six years. Anyway, it’s the perfect number to allow every Thursday between now and the end of February to be Thin Man Thursday here at 100 Films. Below you’ll find links to all the reviews as and when they’re available, starting today with (naturally) the first:


The Thin Man

After the Thin Man

Another Thin Man

Shadow of the Thin Man

The Thin Man Goes Home

Song of the Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934)

2014 #120
W.S. Van Dyke | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

The Thin ManProduced as a B-movie, but eventually nominated for four of the biggest Oscars (Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay*), comedic detective mystery The Thin Man went on to spawn five sequels and a TV series (not to mention a radio series, a stage play, and a musical), as well as inspiring a host of similar comic-mystery B-movie series like the Saint and the Falcon.

Playing like a cross between an Agatha Christie mystery and a screwball comedy, it’s in fact based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and other hard-boiled tales. This is definitely not one of those. The murder mystery is standard enough — a businessman has disappeared, but when his former secretary and lover is found dead, he’s the prime suspect — albeit with enough genuine suspects and twists to keep the viewer guessing. The real joy comes from the investigators: retired detective and alcohol fan Nick Charles (William Powell) and his rich, interested wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Plus their dog, Asta, who gets up to all kinds of mischief. Regular readers will know I’m half-sold on the film at that point.

The film luxuriates in the interactions between Powell and Loy, and between them and any other character. The plot regularly takes a back seat to the cast’s playfulness, which only the most mystery-focused viewer will find objectionable, because it’s so delightful. Acting drunk for the sake of comedy might seem like a cheap fallback, but Powell is on just the right side of the line to make it work flawlessly, especially in scenes that border on farce, Screwing aroundlike a Christmas party which is regularly interrupted by victims and suspects. Even the final scene, a rambling and none-more-Christie-like “gather all the suspects and reveal the answers” dinner party, seems natural because of the characterisation throughout the rest of the film. Loy’s part may not be quite as showy — as demonstrated by its failure to gain an Oscar nomination — but she’s an invaluable half of the double act.

Across the decades the detective story has transitioned to be a staple of television, with dozens of US dramas each churning out 22+ mysteries per year, not to mention all the British ones and, more recently here in the UK, European imports — you can’t move for a fleet of complex murder mysteries being solved on the gogglebox every day. It can make older movies that do the same thing feel less significant; less deserving of their big-screen status. Not so with ones like The Thin Man, which has so much more to offer besides the narrative and its revelations. Here a solid mystery, with potential to keep the viewer guessing, gives a structure on which to hang the real joys, which are provided by the central screwball-ish relationship. And the dog, of course.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

* It lost to the father of screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, in every category. ^

Modern Times (1936)

2014 #55
Charles Chaplin | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / G

Modern TimesCharlie Chaplin satirises technology and modernisation in arguably the last film of the silent era. It actually has a synchronised soundtrack, primarily for music and effects, but also dialogue — though “we hear spoken voices only when they come from mechanical devices, a symbol of the film’s theme of technology and dehumanization.” The irony is it was that technological progress which rendered Modern Times the last hurrah for the era Chaplin remains most identified with.

Stand-out sequences include Chaplin and co-workers battling a speedy production line, and him being the test subject for a new machine designed to feed workers quickly.

4 out of 5

Modern Times was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

City Lights (1931)

2013 #10
Charles Chaplin | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1* | USA / silent (English) | U / G

City LightsThe first film I watched as part of my new-this-year What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? initiative is also the oldest, a silent movie (with a synchronised music & effects soundtrack) starring, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin.

Billed at the start of the titles as “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”, the film concerns the tramp (Chaplin, obv.) falling in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) who stands to be evicted from her home, and also befriending a rich gentlemen (Harry Myers) prone to drink and forgetting the tramp when he’s sober. These relatively slight storylines are really used to string together a series of skits, which I suppose is Chaplin’s forte. These are intermittently very funny, even if some stuff has now dated, probably through copying and repetition by others. However, towards the end there’s a boxing sequence which is flat-out excellent; so good that the old UK DVD used it on the cover, even though it’s a complete aside in the context of the film. Elsewhere, Chaplin puts the synchronised soundtrack to good use, using sound effects for added humour.

Though the film is mostly comedic and the romantic plot is a little thin, Chaplin also manages to construct moments that are affectingly emotional. The most notable is the ending, which remains a striking example of subtle acting yielding huge rewards. It is, you are oft told if you read up on the film, a famous screen moment, though I guess fadingly so because (I must confess) it only rang a vague bell even after I’d seen it. A kiss from a roseMuch of the film’s emotional impact comes courtesy of Cherrill, who gives a suitably pretty and sweet performance. Chaplin wasn’t impressed with her as an actress and attempted re-casting (the film has a remarkably fraught production history), but I think it’s beneficial that never worked out. It’s always possible another actress could have been just as good, of course, but I can’t imagine any playing this role better.

Over 80 years since it was released, I think City Lights’ high place on some Great Movies lists is probably due more to it being Significant than plain enjoyable when viewed today — the kind of film that was great at the time and certainly has a place in history, but has perhaps been surpassed in some respects. Or maybe that’s just me being a young whippersnapper. Either way, greatness is never entirely superseded, and Chaplin’s most acclaimed film still has joys to impart.

4 out of 5

* The original aspect ratio is 1.20:1, but the old UK DVD (at least) is definitely fullscreen. ^

It Happened One Night (1934)

2013 #2
Frank Capra | 100 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

It Happened One NightIt Happened One Night was the first film to win the Oscar “grand slam” (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), and is still one of the few to have won everything it was nominated for (alongside The Last Emperor and Return of the King), yet everyone involved seemed to think it would be a disaster: several people turned it down (five actresses); Claudette Colbert only agreed because she got double her salary and would be done in four weeks (and didn’t bother to attend the Oscars — when she won, she was rushed to the ceremony to make her speech); on the first day Clark Gable declared “Let’s get this over with”; and so on. So is it a multi-Oscar-worthy triumph, or the mistake so many cast and crew thought it to be?

Firstly, it’s the archetypal rom-com: two mismatched people are forced together, initially hate each other, fall in love. I don’t know if it was such a well-known set of events back then, but today it’s a formula we’ve seen repeated a thousand times in cinema. Despite that, its execution here feels fresh. Partly it’s the way the narrative cunningly draws the stars closer and closer together: losing suitcases, switching modes of transport, running out of cash… Partly, it’s the ineffable charm of a well-written, well-performed story. Gable and Colbert light up the screen like true stars. Their chemistry is immense, and though both characters could be intensely dislikable, instead they’re captivating.

It’s often credited as the first screwball comedy, and there is an element of that, though it’s no His Girl Friday in this regard. Still, numerous sequences work really well comically, like the motel argument (a particular stand-out). The Walls of JerichoThe Walls of Jericho running motif is also nicely executed, leading to perhaps the sauciest final scene not to feature a single shot of human beings that I can think of.

Fortunately, It Happened One Night‘s successes are nearer the truth than the opinions of those who made it. Even 80 years on, this stands up firmly as a gloriously entertaining film.

5 out of 5