Wuthering Heights

Director: William Wyler

1939

“William Wyler’s film version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is unsurpassed as a gothic tale of inextinguishable passion, thwarted by social circumstance and mischance.” (144, R. Barton Palmer, 1001 Movie You Must See Before You Die)

Wuthering HeightI find myself disagreeing with pretty much everything R. Barton Palmer has to say about Wuthering Heights.

I was unmoved by the narrative and the sets did little for me either. Indeed while watching the film I felt quite enclosed even when on the moors and couldn’t figure out why. Now knowing that the moors were created in the studio sound stages it all makes sense. “It is the acting of Olivier and Oberon as the doomed lovers, framed against the forbidding wildness of the studio-crafted moors, that makes the film most memorable.” (144)

I didn’t really know the story of Wuthering Heights, just that Heathcliff and Cathy were one of the infamous literary couples, up there with Elizabeth & Darcy, Scarlett & Rhett, Jane Eyre & Rochester. Theirs is a doomed love, which usually makes for an epic story. Unfortunately that’s not how I saw them when watching this version of Wuthering Heights. I found Cathy to have a spoilt child-like temperament, which did not endear her character to me. And the relationship they form is a toxic one – and not just to themselves but everyone else unfortunate enough to orbit the pair. I didn’t see much love, doomed or otherwise, but rather an unhealthy obsession with possessing the other to the destruction of everyone and everything around them. “Heathcliff’s speech about the life they will live together is one of the most poignant moments in any Hollywood film.” (144)

Despite not liking the film I am intrigued by the possibility that the doomed love story of Heathcliff and Cathy was lost in translation and might actually bring myself to read the novel.

The Wizard of Oz

Director: Victor Fleming

1939

The Wizard Of Oz“Based on The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the turn-of-the-century children’s novel by L. Frank Baum, this evergreen classic is one of the great film fairytales, also a first-rate musical and the vehicle that turned Judy Garland from a talented child performer into a lasting and iconic movie star.” (154-155, Kim Newman, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

I think I must have been in a nostalgic mood when I watched this as for once I found myself enjoying the film, which only ever happens once in a blue moon. On the whole I find The Wizard of Oz cloying and Judy Garland as Dorothy annoying beyond belief. This time round I was clearly in the right mood to watch it and found myself really appreciating all the technical aspects of the film. And in terms of the technical side of things the film really is remarkable. Even more so when you think about what they had to work with in 1939!

The switch between the sepia tones of the real world, Dorothy’s Kansas, and the technicolor world that is Oz is flawless. And thanks to the wonder of remastering these colors are as vivid as ever. Oz is a sumptuous land and a visual delight. The Munchkins are wonderful even if they haven’t been synched properly due to altering their voices. They are delightfully bizarre with interesting costumes. “The film has many splendors: a superb Harold Arlen – E. Y. Harburg score (ranging from the wistful “Over the Rainbow” through the infectious jollity of “Off To See The Wizard” and “Ding-Dong, The Witch Is Dead” to the classic comedy of “If I Only Had A Brain”), incredible MGM set design, hundreds of squeaky Munchkins and flying monkeys, the ‘horse of a different color’ gag, and perfect performances all round.” (154-155) The songs are, as always, ridiculously catchy and remain with you for the remainder of the day. Both my mum and I found ourselves singing “Follow The Yellow Brick Road” at random points throughout the day.

The special effects and makeup really are outstanding. For a film made at the tail end of the 1930s the make up and prosthetics are still remarkably believable. I quite like the fact that they are real people. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a computer generated lion if anyone decided to remake The Wizard of Oz which would detract from the character. After all one of the key themes is that although Dorothy has been ripped from her world, quite literally, and deposited in a strange new world there are still familiar faces all around her.  “The “no place like home” theme, a screenwriter’s convenience to keep all the characters focussed on their quests, has always seemed like a slight cop out (why would anyone want to leave the wonders of Oz and go back to Kansas?). It never quite squares with the spoilsport interpretation of the whole film as a delirious dream in which Dorothy has recast everyone she knows as her Land of Oz friends and enemies.” (154-155)

I did find it hard to come at this film with a fresh mind as there are so many different versions and retellings floating around out there. Indeed I did find the story behind Wicked (Stephen Schwartz, 2003) rearing its head every so often which threw a whole new light on Margaret Hamilton’s iconic Wicked Witch of the West. And talking of Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West she is delightfully mean with a quintessential villain’s laugh, one that is oft imitated and grates on you whenever you hear it. The flying monkeys are brilliant although I do remember them scaring me as a child. Now I can appreciate the beauty and all the technical elements that went into creating them.

Frank Morgan is a lovable rogue as the eponymous Wizard, a con-man by all accounts but a rather bumbling, amiable one who you can’t help but like. Again I couldn’t help thinking about how James Franco approached the role in Oz The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013) and it gave his character added depth he hadn’t had before.

Glinda remains as sickly sweet as ever and is the one character I have never warmed to. She is one of the elements of the film that annoys me the most and I can’t ever see that changing really. She’s just so pink and sparkly and I find her extremely insipid!

I love the trio of rag-tag misfits that Dorothy picks up along the way, made up of the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and of course the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). They are all such marvelous characters it’s hard to decide who my favorite is – although when I think about it I come down on the side of the Cowardly Lion – and the actors embody them all perfectly. Ray Bolger has a very fluid movement as Scarecrow which highlights his being made of straw with little in the way of support. As the contrast Jack Haley’s Tin Man is quite a stiff performance indicative of him being rusted still for many years. He is the most obviously emotional character with the others forever telling him to stop crying before he rusts up again. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion combines comedy and cuteness, creating one of the most affable characters within the film. And I do love the pretty red bow on his tail!

Now onto the subject of the most important character, that of Dorothy Gale played by Judy Garland of course. Like Glinda I have never really like Dorothy. I find her whiny and completely unable to appreciate all the wonder that surrounds her in Oz. I also always got the feeling that she isn’t really in control of her own journey – she kind of gets pulled along from one event to the next collecting people as she goes.

I’ve kind of avoided The Wizard Of Oz over the last few years because I had been so unimpressed with it the last time I watched it. I’m glad I have watched it recently and found myself rather unexpectedly enjoying the experience. Having said that I still think this is one of those films I will only watch once in a blue moon and even then only if I’m in the right mood.

The 39 Steps

 Director:Alfred Hitchcock

1935

First of all apologies for my absence from the blogosphere – my stupid Mac died on me (I was most bereft) but my daddy came to the rescue and it is now all fixed and everything is shiny!

Despite being a film graduate, and of course a film fanatic, I have watched surprisingly few Hitchcock films. In fact I don’t think we watched any while studying.

“In traditional Hitchcock fashion, the revelation of what “the 39 Steps” actually are – and indeed the entire spy plot – is almost peripheral to the flirtatious interplay between the two leads.” (122, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)  Almost immediately Hannay gets entangled up with a mysterious and high maintenance woman, Annabella, and yet he takes it all in his stride, acquiescing to all her strange requests with minimal questions. Annabella, a rather chatty spy, introduces the idea of “the 39 Steps” early on before her untimely yet predictable death. And what a melodramatic death it is!

The flashbacks to information she gave Hannay take on a robotic tone, as though a recording, with her face a shadow superimposed over the other shots. Gorgeous art deco decorations in Hannay’s building. Shot artistically in black and white, however there is a very contained feel to the film which comes from being shot in a studio. Pamela is often lit with the soft diffuse lighting that is so common of the films shot during the 1930s.

It’s actually a pretty quiet film with no soundtrack to speak of. The only sound is that captured in the camera. I found it quite uncomfortable as I’m so used to having some sort of sound in every second of a film now-a-days. And yet literally just after writing about the lack of soundtrack, music is introduced during a chase scene. It’s a long time before the main female character, Pamela, appears which ultimately “morphs [the film] from an espionage thriller into the unlikeliest of love stories.” (122) Hannay bumbles from one episode to another even inadvertently speaking at a political meeting.

“After several tentative early steps and a few small breakthroughs, The 39 Steps was the first clear creative peak in Alfred Hitchcock’s British period and arguably marked the first fully successful film in the director’s rapidly deepening oeuvre.” (122) The 39 Steps is not as polished as Hitchcock’s later work. I found it a tad anticlimactic and not nearly as thrilling as the few Hitchcock’s I have actually seen. Although at least you do find out what “the 39 Steps” actually are.

Gone With The Wind

Director: Victor Fleming

1939

“Conceived from the outset as the ultimate Hollywood movie, Gone With the Wind became the benchmark for popular epic cinema for decades to come.” (152, Kim Newman, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The film meanders – it’s much too long but then epic films can too often fall foul of being overly long. I find Gone With the Wind extremely tedious but then I seem to have this predisposition to not like classic films, or indeed really understand the lasting appeal they all seem to have. There’s so much material that just doesn’t need to be included in the film resulting in a much longer film than necessary. It’s so melodramatic! There are lots of tears, both real and fake, lots of fainting and actually quite a lot of death.

I had never seen Gone With the Wind … until this point … and yet even I know “the classic have-it-both-ways ending in which [Rhett] walks out (Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn) and [Scarlett] swears to win him back (Tomorrow is another day.)” Visually Gone With the Wind is stunning and the sheer scale of the production is breathtaking, especially once you remember that it was filmed pre-cgi! “The sweep of the movie is near irresistible, and Selznick’s set pieces are among the most emblematic in cinema history.” (152) It’s interesting that the name most associated with Gone With the Wind (certainly in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) is that of David O. Selznick – the producer rather than the director. Indeed there are even references to his creative input into the film as noted by Newman. The burning of Atlanta is actually pretty realistic but then I guess that comes from Selznick actually “set[ting] fire to the surviving King Kong sets” (152) The hot reds and oranges of the burning setting creates an oddly romantic lighting during Rhett and Scarlett’s departure.

Scarlett starts out as this shallow and manipulative Southern Belle constantly playing the various men in her social circle off against one another. She doesn’t improve much, always keeping this seemingly uncontrollable desire to manipulate the men in her life. She becomes this incredibly strong and determined woman during the course of the war. No longer is she the shallow and spoilt little girl from the start of the film but rather a fighter! She becomes resourceful, working in the fields of the plantation, something a woman of her status would never have done before the war. Vivien Leigh is beautiful and the costumes, in the first half of the film certainly, are just sumptuous, complementing her beauty.

There is an old school charm to Clark Gable and yet he is hugely arrogant, as Rhett, at the same time. It’s not hard to see why he was considered a pin-up during his career. How does he manage to avoid enlisting for as long as he does? Rhett and Scarlett have the now classic romance relationship where they snipe and constantly argue with one another while actually being mad about each other. While it’s an interesting relationship it is not enough to warrant an almost 4 hour-long film … not nearly enough!!

“Like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind tidies up a lot of complex history, showing only happy devoted slaves.” (152) The relationship between the various slaves and Scarlett is a surprising one where they seem to be almost family. Scarlett nearly always talks to the slaves with respect. And yet both at the time of filming and the time during which the film is set relations between whites and blacks were far from genial.

I spent the whole film just waiting for the end, partly because I wanted the film to be over but also because I was waiting for the infamous ending. I also spent the vast majority of the film pretty bored. I do like that even once Rhett and Scarlett finally get their act together and marry one another they still have quite a volatile relationship … they still argue and snipe at each other the whole time. It adds a touch of reality to the relationship rather than giving it the Hollywood treatment and having them be all sweetness and light. Throughout it all I feel kind of sorry for Rhett as he does really love Scarlett but she is so fixated on Ashley that he is forever in the shadows.

I would never willingly watch Gone With the Wind again but at least now I can say I have seen it. I also seem to be keeping up my whole ‘I really don’t like the classics’ thing though not on purpose.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Director: Ted Sears & Richard Creedon

1937

I’m gonna start with a fairly long quote from Joshua Klein but its one that I think is a good starting point for me own review. “There is no way to overestimate the effect of Snow White. It not only permanently established Disney as one of the foremost studios on the world but also advanced the state of animation to such a degree that it wasn’t really until the advent of computer animation that anyone arguably pushed the form further. A creative triumph, Snow White inspired hundreds of imitators, gave birth to an empire, and remains to this day the default template for nearly all animated features.” (137, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There is clearly something about not only the Disney version but the very story of Snow White that still appeals to this day , indeed just this year alone we have had 2 feature films (Snow White and the Huntsman, Rupert Sanders; Mirror Mirror, Tarsem Singh) and a television series (Once Upon A Time, Adam Horowitz) focussing on the story of Snow White, though I can’t quite decide what it is.

Snow White is undoubtably full of memorable songs that even if you don’t know the words you certainly know the tune. And yet I find her singing voice quite tremulous though I guess it fits the image of naivety her character has.

You cannot deny how outstanding the contribution Snow White had to the film industry. Just think if we never had Snow White then we would never have had such classics like The Lion King (Roger Allers, 1994), Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale, 1991) or indeed Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995). I enjoy all Disney films (with possibly the only exception being The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gary Trousdale, 1996, as it’s a massive snooze-fest!) don’t get me wrong but I have a much more emotional connection to the films released in the early 1990s as they are the ones I grew up with. A lot of the early Disney films are ones I have gone back to discover after falling in love with The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (Ron Clements, 1992)

You can see how Snow White has influenced other films – sometimes directly like the scene when Snow White and the bird are copying each other which appears in Shrek (Andrew Adamson, 2001) … just with a less happy ending for the bird. The way Snow White sorts out the dwarfs and tidies up their appearance can be seen in the way Milly sorts out the Pontipee brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954)

The Disney version, while being less terrifying than the original Brothers Grimm tale upon which it’s based, still has its own scary moments. I remember being terrified when the Queen transforms into the hag!

The seven dwarfs are wonderful and everyone has their own favourite. Mine personally is Dopey – without saying anything he is still one of the most expressive characters in the film. I just love him, I think he’s adorable! Though Doc is pretty adorable too with his inability to keep his words from mixing up. The animation truly is beautiful and still holds up extremely well today. And just think this was at the start of Disney’s career – it’s certainly an excellent starting point to build on.

While there are, and have been, many animated features since Snow White none but those made by the Disney (and now Pixar too) studio have that special thing, that magic that makes them timeless and enduringly popular … with the exception of Anastasia (Don Bluth, 1997) the film that isn’t Disney but really should be!!

There seems to be a lesson taught in every Disney (as I have said in every post concerning a Disney movie so far) and its true here. Snow White teaches us that jealousy is a hateful emotion and will ultimately destroy you while love has the power to save you every time. Great lessons that every little girl should learn from a young age.