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Band of Angels (1957)

band_of_angels_1957Band of Angels is an odd film. It has the kernel of an interesting idea wrapped up in an infelicitous combination of The Sheik and Birth of a Nation, with a few attempts to update the story to a more progressive era.

The story follows Amantha “Manty” Starr (Yvonne De Carlo), who is raised by her white plantation owning father to believe that she is a white Southern belle. But when her fathers dies, she discovers that her mother was a slave and that (since her father evidently never thought to formally free her) she can be sold with the rest of the plantation.

She is bought, however, by Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a tormented former slaver who is now trying to atone for his misdeeds by treating his slaves well (which is odd – apparently it never occurs to him to free his slaves or become an abolitionist?). She also meets Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), who was raised and educated by Bond, but harbors resentment against Bond because, as he tells Manty, kindness can be used to enslave as surely as brutality. But Manty still becomes Bond’s mistress and then the Civil War begins.

One of the things that is odd (among many things that are odd) is that we never really believe that she is half-black. This is not only because Yvonne De Carlo was not black, but because of how all the characters (including the slaves, with the exception of Rau-Ru) treat her, like an “honorary” white person. She never evinces any interest in who her mother was or really attempts to grapple with her own identity. Instead, it comes off more like exploitation, an excuse to get a white woman into slavery and the power of other men. It’s kind of trashy in that way. She even suffers from Stockholm Syndrome and is molested by practically every white man who comes on the scene.

I think the film was trying to be progressive in that Hamish Bond really has no prejudice against Manty, but because it’s hard not to think of her as really a white woman, the film loses its edge. And in truth, the story would have been a hundred times more interesting if the romance occurred between Manty and Rau-Ru.

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

In an uncharacteristically turgid film by Raoul Walsh, whose films I otherwise always enjoy for their energy and pacing, the only real source of energy and tension comes from Sidney Poitier’s character. He despises how Manty continues to view herself as white and above the rest of the slaves (she becomes very angry at the suggestion that she is having an affair with Rau-Ru and always goes out of her way to remind people that she is a lady – which is understandable, because she was raised to think of herself that way). He also points out that, despite their education and relative freedom, neither of them has any identity outside of Hamish Bond. A working out of a relationship between them – if not a romantic one, at least one of mutual respect or understanding – could have made for an intriguing story.

Although we are evidently supposed to disapprove of Rau-Ru’s lack of gratitude to Hamish, he is right. If Hamish Bond had really cared, he would have freed him and all his slaves. No matter how much you may actually care for someone, if you do not respect them enough to realize that they are separate individuals who cannot be owned, then if push comes to shove, you will always exercise that power you possess over them. This happens with Manty’s father. He prides himself on never selling his slaves, but when one of the slaves hints about who Manty’s mother really was, her father sells him in a heartbeat.

Rau-Ru may have been raised like a son by Hamish Bond, but he still finds himself running from the dogs and hunters like a runaway slave after he hits a white plantation owner in defense of Manty.

I usually enjoy Clark Gable, but he seems tired in Band of Angels as the romantically tormented hero. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, because of his guilt, having to burn his plantation when the Yankees come, but it is difficult to do so. Worse, in the film all his slaves love him, including Michele (Carolle Drake), who seems to have been his mistress before being casually tossed aside for Manty, who both he and Michele treat as being above her. And we’re supposed to feel more sorry for him than for Michelle? Or any of his supposedly happy slaves?

182-1200-630The film also suggests that the Northern army and the abolitionists were a bunch of hypocrites, no better than the Southern plantation owners. The myth of the hypocritical abolitionist shows up in a number of Hollywood films, which is frustrating, because there were few people less hypocritical than the abolitionists.

In short, it’s a very odd and frustrating film. Interesting idea; gives one something to think about. And it does illustrate the limited number of roles available for black actors in the 1950s, though it was improving. But it never would have occurred to anyone to write a romance between Poitier and De Carlo…or a romance between Michele and Hamish Bond. Or to cast a black actress as Manty. Which is too bad because, at the very least, Sidney Poitier would have been a great leading man for the film.

I viewed Band of Angels as part of the “90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon,” hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts celebrating his life and career, which can be found here.

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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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1906 San Francisco Earthquake

800px-Post-and-Grant-Avenue.-Look110 years ago to the day, at 5:12 AM in San Francisco, there was a 7.8 earthquake. Immediately following the earthquake was a fire that burned for three days and destroyed nearly the entire city. More than two-thirds of the population were homeless, around 3,000 people are believed to have died. According to Philip L. Fradkin, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was “the closest this country has come to experiencing the widespread ravages of modern warfare.”

I actually owe the idea of this post to Movie Classics and the “Bette Davis Blogathon.” Movie Classics wrote about The Sisters, with Bette Davis, and her post inspired me to revisit the film. Near the end, Bette Davis is in San Francisco and has just been deserted by her husband, Errol Flynn. While she sits in disbelief, the camera cuts to the calendar, which reads April 18th. This was supposed to be a portend, but I honestly had no idea what the significance was…until the house fell in on Bette Davis’ head.  It was then that I realized that the 110th anniversary of the earthquake was coming up and I set out to read several books on the topic and watch a few films that feature the event.

Books – Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in completing either book in time for this post.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester, is a bit peripatetic. We’ve visited Iceland, various podunky little towns across America. He’s covered the founding history of California, various earthquake disasters in the 1800s, and lots and lots about plate tectonics, the Pacifc Plate, the North American Plate and the San Andreas Fault. What we haven’t covered yet is the San Francisco earthquake…and I’m 200 pages in.

Simon Winchester evidently studied to be a geologist and many of his books have a geological approach to their respective topics. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s only that I was primarily interested in the more social aspects of the 1906 disaster. His book also takes a more global approach, necessitated by the interconnected nature of plate tectonics. For him, people are relatively helpless and small in the face of the sheer size and age of the world.

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Philip L. Fradkin takes the opposite approach in his book, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, which I have also not finished. He posits that San Francisco was ill-prepared for an earthquake and that they were largely responsible for their own destruction. The earthquake was devastating, but the firestorms that followed are what caused the kind of apocalyptic images taken a few days after. He explores the ways people react in moments of disaster.

The main problem was that firemen didn’t have enough water and resorted to dynamiting buildings. The idea was to create a wall to stop the fire, but instead it merely caused the spread of the fire. They also used the wrong kind of explosives – black powder, which is highly flammable. Basically, a lot of people with limited to no experience of explosives ran about dynamiting the city. There were so many charges going off, that many people said it sounded like a war zone.

To complete the picture of war zone devastation, the federal army was also deployed to keep order. San Franciscans thought marshal law had been declared. What had actually happened is that the Brigadier General in charge of Fort Mason simply deployed the troops when he saw the extent of the damage, though the mayor never protested. Instead, the mayor issued a warning that all looters should be shot on sight, adding to the confusion.

I believe the rest of the book is going to cover the rebuilding of San Francisco and the uneven distribution of relief.

Movies – There are five movies that I am aware of involving the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, though I am sure that there are more.

san-francisco-wreck-movie-7San Francisco (1936) is probably the most famous movie featuring the earthquake. Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a saloon keeper on the Barbary Coast who falls in love with Jeanette MacDonald’s innocent Mary Blake, an aspiring opera singer. It’s a typical, lavish MGM film that is quite entertaining and ends with a fantastic earthquake sequences that does feature the fire, the heavy dynamiting and the constant presence of the soldiers. The earthquake comes as a deus ex machina, partly as retribution for the sins of the city. Everything is wiped out so they can start afresh with repentance in their hearts.

I watched Frisco Jenny (1932) for the earthquake, but was pleasantly surprised by the story. Directed by William Wellman and starring Ruth Chatterton, the story is a kind of Madame X (though I’ve never seen any version of Madame X). Ruth Chatterton is the daughter of a saloon keeper and in love with the piano player. She’s pregnant with their child and they plan to marry, despite her father’s refusal. But after the earthquake, both her father and her lover are dead and she must fend for herself and her child.

15568After becoming a successful madam, she is forced to give up her child because of legal issues (she is accused of murder), but watches as he grows up to become an honest DA. She, on the other hand, has been running the bootlegging in the city, as well as paying off the politicians. But she’s determined to never get in the way of her son. It’s a remarkable performance by Ruth Chatterton. The plot sounds soapy, but it actually makes perfect sense, as Chatterton’s character consistently makes intelligent decisions that make sense in the context of her situation and the story is extremely affecting. The earthquake also looks pretty good, happening at the beginning rather then the end of the film.

untitledIn The Sisters (1938), the earthquake has the least importance, being more of a historical event that happens to occur during the story. The story begins in Montana, on the 1904 election night. Bette Davis, in an uncharacteristically restrained and quiet role (which I find absolutely riveting) falls in love with ne’re-do-well sportswriter Errol Flynn. She elopes with him to San Francisco, but the restraints of married life and his guilt over not being able to provide the things the husbands of her sisters do causes him to leave her, after which the earthquake strikes. But Bette Davis moves on, becomes successful in business and the film ends with a reunion in Montana during the 1908 election.

There are two other films that I’m aware of that feature the 1906 earthquake: two silent films called Old San Francisco (1927) and The Shock (1923). Old San Francisco apparently features a terrific earthquake at the end and some very scenic scenes in Chinatown, but is also virulently racist, depicting the Chinese as sneaky, devious people preying on innocent Caucasians. In this film, the earthquake comes as divine retribution to save the heroine from a fate worse than death. What I find interesting is that this film, made in 1927, should represent so accurately what was a prevailing view of many San Franciscans in 1906, who were evidently constantly trying to find a “solution” to the Chinatown problem (Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed by the earthquake and fire). The Shock features Lon Chaney and is available on youtube. 

Notable People in San Francisco in 1906

Enrico Caruso is the most famous survivor of the Earthquake. He was in San Francisco with the Metropolitan Opera Company, which was on tour. Fortunately, non of the opera company died, though they lost most of their baggage, as well as the props and scenery for many of their operas. On the day after the earthquake, Caruso apparently traded in a signed photograph of Theodore Roosevelt to get the opera company on a ferry boat to Oakland

John Barrymore was also present during the earthquake. He was 24 years old and appearing in a somewhat obscure play. All we really know is that he was at the opera to hear Caruso sing in “Carmen.” Reportedly, he coped by getting drunk in a bathtub.

Footage of San Francisco in 1906

Although historians are unsure exactly when this footage was taken, at most it was only a month before the earthquake. The camera was placed on the front of a cable car traveling down Market Street by the four Miles brothers. The streets look busier than they actually are; they had cars repeatedly drive in front of the cable car (note the car with license plate 4867 – he seems particularly to show up a lot). It’s fascinating to see what it really looked like, however: how people really dressed, how traffic flow was rather disorganized. Both Frisco Jenny and The Sisters features clips from this footage to lend authenticity to the proceedings.

This video shows footage of the same street, before and after the earthquake and fire. It’s chilling.

Visit this link for many more pictures of the disaster, which I highly recommend.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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Red Dust (1932) – Like David and Basthsheba in the Jungle

thI have wanted to see Red Dust for a long time. It is one of the quintessential pre-code films, and I had a very definite idea what the movie would be about before I saw it. It was going to be all about the wise-cracking chemistry between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable (with one steamy kiss between Gable and Mary Astor) and about the difference between Harlow’s Vantine – the hooker with a heart of gold – and Astor’s Barbara – the lady who acts more like a prostitute than the prostitute. And there was going to be a definite class element to the story, the difference between the purposelessness of Astor’s and her husband’s New York life and the vibrancy of the Indochina rubber plantation that Gable runs.

So I was a little taken aback when I finished the movie with a different impression. It struck me as a retelling of David and Bathsheba and a story about four remarkably immature and emotionally stunted people, trying to play at love and ruining each other’s lives in the charged and closed atmosphere of the steamy, hot, and rainy rubber plantation. And at the center of the story was Clark Gable’s Dennis Carson, a modern King David.

Harlow and Gable

Harlow and Gable

Clark Gable is Denny, a manager (or owner; not sure which) of a rubber plantation. He says he hates it, but his overseer, Mac (Tully Marshall) says it’s in his blood. His father did it and he’ll always do it. Soon the prostitute, Vantine (Jean Harlow), arrives on the boat and although his men nudge him and wink, Denny says that he’s known her type of woman before. However, she soon cajoles him and kids him into a better humor and the two of them enjoy her stay very much. She resumes her journey, however, and when he tries to pay her, she is hurt and says she had hoped it wasn’t like that.

Soon, an engineer, Gary Willis, (Gene Raymond) and his wife, Barbara (Mary Astor), arrive at the plantation and Denny is instantly struck by the wife (literally; she slaps him), who he regards as a lady. When Gary falls ill, he helps nurse him through and Barbara is almost uncontrollably attracted to him as well. Meanwhile, the boat Vantine was suppose to take has broken down, so now she is back at the plantation and watching with jealous eyes as Denny arranges so that the husband is away on difficult work so he can seduce Barbara.

It’s all a very entertaining, wise-crack exchanging, super-charged, compact, gritty, steamy little film. However, as I mentioned, I wound up with an unexpected impression. In fact, despite how the movie was advertised as being about Gable and Harlow (understandable, since she and he were the stars at MGM), I was a little surprised at how little Harlow’s character really further’s the central plot. The center is Gable, and the triangle between Astor and Raymond. Without that, there is no story.

Mary-Astor-and-Clark-Gable-in-Red-Dust1932

Astor and Gable

What I am curious about is what the writers of the screenplay intended. Did they mean to draw parallels to King David or was that merely coincidental? In the remake of Red DustMogambo, it is clear from the start that Clark Gable and the Jean Harlow character (played by Ava Gardiner), are meant to be together. The romance between him and the society lady is poignant, but you know it’s never going to work. Red Dust is intriguingly ambiguous. No character particularly seems to belong with anyone.

Denny’s character is an interesting one, which has shades of King David. He is the king of his manor. He treats his Asian workers (the ‘coolies’) little better than slaves, he treats his white workers only a step or two up. He even treats Vantine like just somebody for him to use. He’s never had a normal relationship of equals in his whole life and there appears to be nobody he respects or who he can have empathy for. When he’s with Vantine, all they do is wisecrack and wrestle like kids. Then Barbara and Gary arrive.

At first, he treats her and her husband brusquely, believing they are just society people who will not be tough enough to take the life. However, when a frustrated and overwhelmed Barbara slaps him, that is when he really looks at her and begins his pursuit. I was a little puzzled by this, but I think it makes sense. Denny clearly has a thing about women who are supposedly ladies. He mentions it several times, dismissing women like Vantine. He makes sure everyone treats Barbara like a lady, and he treats her like one by trying to make sure she is comfortable. At one point, he tells Barbara that his mother died on the plantation, which is why he doesn’t usually allow women on the plantation (Vantine doesn’t seem to count in his mind). One wonders if his mother was also a lady, not tough like his father, and that this idea of being a lady came from her. The reason the slap got his attention is because, whether she meant to or not, Barbara was signaling that she expected to be treated differently than his coolies, workers and prostitutes. He is turned on by that, but also respects her for it.

tumblr_me616dcsa11rxeqpao1_500And interestingly enough, it is only to Barbara that he actually talks as if she were an equal and not somebody below him, mentioning personal things like the death of his mother. And like King David, he sends her husband off on an awful and nearly impossible work site so that he can be alone with her, although Vantine is still around and has to watch what is going on.

But because he’s so emotionally stunted, he doesn’t realize the consequences. He sees Barbara, he wants Barbara and even believes that he’s fallen in love. And it is only when he spends a little time with Gary and realizes that he’s a decent young man, eager to work hard and never complaining about the working conditions (it’s pouring rain most of the time), who loves his wife, it’s only then that Denny really considers that his actions affect others.

And this is where the tragedy comes in, because it’s really too late to fix anything, but he doesn’t realize that, either. He decides that he cannot run away with Barbara and that she will be better off with her husband. So he does his best to make her hate him by telling her he never loved her and implying that she’s just a tramp. She responds by becoming hysterical and, happening to have a gun in her hand that he had given her earlier for protection, she shoots him in the side. Gary comes in and Denny and Vantine tell him that Denny had tried to assault Barbara and she had fired in self-defense. Gary and Barbara leave and Denny is left with Vantine, who nurses him back to health. And the movie ends.

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

But the damage has already been done. He may think he’s fixed it simply by taking himself out of the running, but the marriage is broken now. It’s hard to imagine that Barbara – who struggled with guilt about Gary, who she regards as a trusting child – won’t confess what happened when she is no longer hysterical or if she doesn’t, there will always be that barrier between them and Gary may never be sure what happened. It is also hard to imagine that she will simply get over what she felt for Denny or how he tossed her aside (he’s trying to be noble, but no woman wants to be told they were used like a tramp; they would rather hear that their love mattered, even if the affair must end). Near the end of the movie, when Vantine and Denny are both playing their parts to convince Gary and Barbara that everything was Denny’s fault, they have the slightly pleased expressions of children who think they have put a toy back together and don’t realize just how broken it is.

Barbara’s character actually reminded me a lot of the character Anna Karenina. Like Anna, Barbara is in an unequal marriage, only her husband seems much younger than her rather than older. And like Anna, she flings herself headlong into the affair – knowing it’s wrong, feeling guilty, but not stopping to really think about it. I still can’t figure out how she and Gary were married in the first place. My theory is that they knew each other all their lives and married because it was expected of them by their parents (I imagine them as having mothers who are also bridge partners).

Astor and Raymond

Astor and Raymond

Gary speaks wistfully to Denny of his dream to go to South America, which he gave up when he got married. He’s also like a kid, enjoying playing at shooting tigers, completely oblivious to what is going on between his wife and Denny, and it is Barbara, not Gary, who makes the decisions and who mothers him when he doesn’t feel well. Gary speaks about wanting a home in New York and a family, but neither Barbara or Gary act as if they do. It is not clear what Barbara wants, but she seems to want to travel, since she came with Gary on the trip in the first place, and because she is willing to run away with Denny and see the world.There is no evidence that she wants that home and children that Gary talks about. It sounds more like parroting an idea somebody put in his head about what he and Barbara really feel, even if they don’t. Denny seems to be Barbara’s first real passion and she abandons herself to it completely.Denny thinks he’s found his ideal of a lady, not realizing the emotional vulnerability beneath the red hot passion.

Vantine is another interesting character who, unlike Barbara, does not expect to be treated well, since she probably never has been before. She doesn’t really mind that Denny doesn’t love her, if she even knows it, because she too is emotionally stunted. All she really knows or cares about is that she has him. She is delighted when Denny decides to be “noble” and never even thinks about whether or not his heart was really engaged (or Barbara’s). In some respects, it is like her character is in the movie to provide titilation for the audience…like her notorious bath in the water barrel scene.

MV5BNzE2ODQ0Mzk4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDkzNTI2__V1_SY317_CR13,0,214,317_But I do not believe that Denny loves Vantine. If she had really left the first time, I don’t think he would even have missed her. The only time he pays attention to her is when he is upset by something. At the beginning of the movie, he is upset generally about working on the plantation, later he kisses her when he is trying to get drunk and is sulking about how he is now not going to run away with Barbara, and at the end they kiss when he is upset after having been reminded of Barbara and Gary, who have sailed back to New York. When Vantine reads him the article, he has a brief expression of regret on his face, then he kisses her. It’s actually kind of sad, because, however fun the scene is with Vantine reading him a children’s bedtime story (because she’s read everything else in the paper multiple times) and their grins and playfulness, it is the playfulness of children (underscored by the children’s story she is reading) and not of adults engaging in an adult relationship and he seems to be trying to console himself, using her rather than really seeing her as a person or respecting her.

I have to say, the movie is far more entertaining that I just made it sound, but Red Dust somehow managed to inspire my interest. It’s a very taut film and there’s no moral to the story, nor is the ending really the end of the story for these characters. Perhaps that’s why I liked it; there was so much room to imagine these people’s past lives, their motivations, and their future.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2014 in Drama

 

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