Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Searchers (1956)

By Eric Jessen 10/28/09

Somewhere in John Wayne's awkward delivery, in Scar's splotchy makeup, in the tumbleweed of Monument Valley, The Searchers gets its enigmatic quality. It's sustained through every fizzle and every crescendo. Each scene is cluttered with failed attempts at humor, the most tiresome being when Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) fights for Laurie (Vera Miles) on her wedding night -- actually just about every scene with Laurie is clutter, and dare I say I found Mose (Hank Warden) and his rocking chair annoying. And how absurd is Natalie Wood's Debbie looking more prim than ever as a scalp scraping Comanche? Really, much of The Searchers is not even all that enjoyable. Yet, when John Wayne as Ethan Edwards is framed in the doorway at the end, leaning to the side like a cowboy cardboard cutout, and then stumbling down the porch steps in front of the ever-expansive valley, The Searchers was destined for legendary status. In that final scene, we wonder what Ethan will possibly do with himself now that he's finished searching for Debbie. We wonder where he will wander to next. Then the door blows shut, and we know we'll never find out. The Searchers had captured the mystery, the wonder possible in movies.
Although The Searchers wasn't nominated for any Academy awards when it was released, by the 1970's it was already a favorite among young directors. By 2007, it was voted the 12th greatest American movie by AFI. Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and others fell in love with The Searchers and particularly Ethan: the obsessive, erratic journeyman and the combustible racist. They loved the ambiguity of Ethan. What made him hate Comanches? And how does he know so much about them? Why doesn't he kill Debbie like he said he would?

(See "The Defiant Ones" review for more on "The Searchers")

The Defiant Ones (1958)

By Eric Jessen 10/28/09

Just two years after The Searchers was released, Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most socially conscious director released The Defiant Ones. As much as it feels weird to see these two titles in the same sentence, they make for an interesting comparison. Considering The Searchers in the most narrow way possible, you could say both of these movies are about race. The Defiant Ones is about race in the most simplistic way: two prisoners chained together, one white and one black, escape their not-so-armored bus -- forced to hitch their way through Lynchdale and Hickville in an attempt to reach the railroads to freedom. Other than the race topic, the two movies are almost completely different. Unlike The Searchers, The Defiant Ones was nominated for numerous Academy awards including Best Picture. On the other hand, it has nearly been forgotten since.
With The Defiant Ones, and most Kramer movies (Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), every inch of frame, every actor and actress looks just a little too slick, too stagy. Watching Tony Curtis pretending to be the racist, “Joker,” I almost broke out laughing: his Hollywood liberalism bursting out his seams, oozing out his smirk. I couldn't help but think Tony Curtis was simply too much of a pretty boy to play a racist. With The Defiant Ones, Curtis, Kramer and company's intentions are too apparent.
The Searchers is a more believable portrayal of race because there will aways be part of me that wonders whether John Ford and John Wayne thought they were making just another western. In The Defiant Ones, it's black vs white – pretty simple. But in The Searchers Ethan (white) is pitted against the common foe of westerns -- Indians. As opposed to Curtis' “Joker,” Wayne's Ethan is a much more believable racist because there will always be part of me that wonders if Ethan's prejudices are Wayne's. Doesn't Wayne seem like the type who might think like Ethan?
The essential difference between The Searchers and The Defiant Ones, and The Searchers and many other mainstream Hollywood movies is that with The Searchers, for many of my questions there is not one clear answer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gone with the Wind (1939)

By Eric Jessen 10/10/09

Oh, how time heals all wounds. All of a sudden by 1939 D. W. Griffith was a trendy hack and Victor Fleming (with the help of George Cukor, Sam Wood and probably a few others) was the business' greatest artist and craftsman. From the ghastly racism of Griffith's 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, to Fleming and company's so called work of truth and genius, Gone with the Wind, Hollywood had apparently learned its lesson. No longer would black people be portrayed as rabid dogs, foaming at the mouth over white women, or imbecile beasts. They said with GWTW, everything had changed. Black people were finally portrayed honestly. They were finally shown in their true form: the dignified, no-nonsense maid, the obedient, blubber-lipped houseman, and the chirping midwife, all happily whistling Dixie, content with the servant's life. With a bow from the movers and shakers (Selznick, MGM and the Academy) and a loud “Your welcome,” Hollywood expected a pat on the back. And in 1939 they got what wanted. But unfortunately for them, everyone has done some rethinking.
Looking back at both “Birth” and GWTW, it is clear little had changed. No wound had healed. The scar on Hollywood and all of America for that matter, was still evident. From 1915 to 1939, Hollywood had just picked away a big ugly scab and replaced it with another. In some ways, I think the depiction of black people and the Civil War era South is more troubling in GWTW than in “Birth.”
The black characters in GWTW were actually played by black people. That was a start. This cannot be said for “Birth.” And at least with Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), they were dignified. And in the case Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Pork (Oscar Polk), they were slightly more lovable then laughable. The black characters in “Birth” compared to those in GWTW were, as Globe critic Ty Burr might say, aggressively stupid rather than acceptably dumb. Where GWTW really allies itself with “Birth” is in its message. Both seem to want the same thing for black people: to be forever white people's help. They both strongly advocate for the traditions of the old South, just in different ways. “Birth” puts its interpretation (falsification) of the Civil War and Reconstruction and its opinion of slavery in full view, whereas GWTW dances around the issue. But considering its nostalgic glorification of Tara, and the plantations yearly ball - girls in poofy dresses frolicking around the expansive garden, with all the assistance in the world from Mammy, Pork and Prissy they could ever want - the point is made by omission.
So what's infuriating and most troubling about GWTW is that it was extremely successful. Stupidity and wrongheadedness were slipped right past us more effectively then ever. And how? By turning the schmaltz-o-meter up to eleven. We all got wrapped-up in its first class melodrama. The four million dollars (the biggest budget to date) spent on bright, gleaming Technicolor, thousands of extras playing dead, and one big smoldering set mesmerized us. GWTW features a story for the ages (adapted from the novel): a sweeping tale of lovers crossing paths at simply the wrong time. It still wows today. And who can forget such great performances. The four mil was also well spent on the perfect “damn,” dame and dude. Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara looks most bratty, neurotic, and spunky. Clark Gable appears at home playing the suave drunkard Rhett Butler. And the “damn” is a memorable cherry on top. These three d's seem to hold GWTW together and make it quite enjoyable (though I suggest spreading it out over two nights). And the ensemble directing job is not half bad at all. Characters are knocked off with the utmost precision, each death more unexpected then the last, and each more gut wrenching. When Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Michell) and Bonny Blue Butler (Cammie King) are flung off their horses, I picture them catapulted to the heavens. When Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) passes her spirit rises and sprouts beautiful white feathered wings. When Scarlet wanders off into the mist near the end, it's Melanie's spirit that guides her. GWTW, the overwrought melodrama, will endure. But like “Birth,” it will always have that irremovable blemish: its message.