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The Hurricane (1937) – Disaster Film, Colonialism and Racism

The French flag is the symbol of colonialism in this movie. We see it at the beginning and we see it at the end, when it is being ripped to shreds by the hurricane. The movie was released in 1937 and directed by John Ford, who is best remembered for his Westerns and was often interested in themes of racism. The Hurricane is an interesting movie, very much of its times in how it blends a paternalistic attitude of the native people of the South Sea Islands with an attempt to expose the cruelties inherent in colonialism.

The biggest problem with Ford’s view is that the native islanders are portrayed as children that should be treated with the indulgence you would afford children. The other issue often mentioned is Ford’s decision to cast his two lead characters – both Polynesian – with Caucasian actors; however, I feel that the practice of casting white people in various non-white roles is such an old and long lasting problematic practice (it even occurs today) that it is unfair to single out Ford in this instance.

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Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall

The plot is a bit like Les Miserables meets disaster film. Terangi (Jon Hall) is a popular and free-spirited young man from the island of Manakura. He is first mate on a merchant ship and is engaged to marry the chief’s daughter, Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Everyone loves and admires him, even the governor and his wife. However, on a trip to Tahiti, a white man insults him and tells him to stand in the presence of his betters. Terangi is angry and knocks him out. He is sentenced to prison for six months, despite Manakura’s resident doctor (Thomas Mitchell) appealing to Governor De Laage of Manakura (Raymond Massey) to intervene.

Terangi doesn’t really understand what is going on and he can’t bear to be in prison and away from his new wife and tries to escape. He is caught and his sentence is upped to two years. The guards are cruel, he repeatedly tries to escape and the years pile up on his sentence. After six years of imprisonment, he has accumulated 16 years of prison time.

The Hurricane

Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, Jerome Cowan

Meanwhile, his family and friends are bitterly resentful of the governor’s contined refusal to intervene. Governor De Laage says that he must uphold the law, whilst his friend the doctor, his wife (Mary Astor), his priest (C. Aubrey Smith) and Terangi’s captain (Jerome Cowan) maintain that in this instance the law is unjust. Finally, Terangi succeeds in escaping for real and is reunited with Marama and their child. Her family are preparing to help them escape to another island when De Laage begins to get suspicious. However, before anyone can do anything else, a hurricane hits the island.

And I must say that the special effects are truly impressive. There are fifteen minutes, without music and only the church bell ringing, of rain and storm and water while people try to escape. It looks great…and all the better for not being CGI. When the actors were being hit with water and high wind and Mary Astor said in her book, A Life On Film, that the wind and the water hit their faces so hard that they would have little pinpricks of blood all over their faces.

In a way, the hurricane acts as a deus ex machina, but not in any way that anyone could have wished. It solves everything only because it is so terrible an event that the previous concerns no longer matter. The hurricane wipes the slate clean and those who are left must start afresh.

MV5BMTk1Njk2MzQ2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzA0MTI0NA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_Although the movie was marketed as a romance between Terangi and Marama – and a lot of time is spent with them – the most interesting character is Governor De Laage and one’s enjoyment of the film seems to partly rest with whether or not one can sympathize with or at least handle Raymond Massey’s portrayal of the character. No one can play implacable to the point of harshness quite like Massey.

Andrew Sarris has an interesting view of the film, in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. He writes that because Terangi and Marama are portrayed as Hollywoodized innocent victims, “the film’s dramatic focus shifts therefore to the Europeans, and particularly to one of the most fascinatingly civilized of all movie couples – Raymond Massey’s Governor De Laage and Mary Astor’s Mrs. De Laage. The Hurricane is ultimately their story as they argue with exquisite delicacy and tact the conflicting claims of the law and the heart.”

In fact, Mrs. De Laage seems to feel, unlike any other character in the movie, that she can appeal to De Laage’s heart. She always approaches him by addressing his heart rather than his reason (the doctor repeatedly appeals to reason without any effect) and he always responds by saying that it is not fair for her to attack him where he is vulnerable, as if the two of them have some secret knowledge that he is actually sentimental at heart even though no one else can tell. We do see it a little, at the beginning and the end, how much he loves his wife, as much as Terangi loves Marama, but he is more reserved about it. Massey and Astor do not have much time together, but it is still an intriguing relationship.

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Mary Astor, Thomas Mitchell, Jerome Cowan, Unidentified Woman, Raymond Massey

Sarris also argues that De Laage is far more subtle than sometimes supposed, not the cruel sadist and legalist that he is often called. It seems like he has trapped himself. He feels that he must uphold the law, not so much for the sake of the law but because if he does not act in solidarity with his fellow governors and lawmakers, then he is tacitly undermining the very principles of colonialism. If it is an injustice for Terangi to be put in prison for not knowing his place, then what business do the French have ruling over these people if they are not beneath them?

The result, unsurprisingly, of stubbornly and rigidly standing his ground is alienation and what the author of Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe, would call cluelessness. He alienates himself from his friends (the doctor and priest) and from all the people of the island, and one cannot help wondering a little about the state of his marriage (they seem a little tense together). As a result of his refusal to bend, he cuts himself off from everyone and he is the last one to know anything, such as when Terangi finally escapes from prison.

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Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour

This cluelessness is brought about by a refusal to put oneself in the place of others, which means you cannot understand them, their motives, or what they are capable of doing. By standing firm in keeping Terangi in prison, De Laage shows remarkable cluelessness in not understanding the people he governs. For one, as my sister pointed out, it is a very small island and everyone’s probably related – like one large family – so when Terangi is wrongfully imprisoned, they all take it personally. He is basically trying to apply cold law meant for nations to a family, and it is not clear that the people of Manakura fully understand the whys and wherefores of the laws of the French.

There is a scene at the beginning when De Laage is reprimanding one young man for “stealing” a canoe (to take his sweetheart on a moonlit trip). The doctor argues for clemency because the young man had all the excuse in the world – moonlight – which isn’t the point, I think. What is probably going on is that, if the islanders are all family, they might be used to borrowing and sharing their possessions. A family member borrowing my car, even without my permission, is not the same as somebody I don’t know in a large city, taking a joyride. In this instance, De Laage is attempting to apply European laws to a situation that does not merit them. It is the inherent cluelessness of colonialism.

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Thomas Mitchell

The doctor is an interesting character, because I think we are meant to agree with him, though I rarely wanted to. He is perpetually drinking and loves the island and never wants to go back to Paris. He is also one of the loudest voices against De Laage’s actions, or inaction. However, it is through him that we get most of the paternalistic arguments about how the people of Manakura are like children and need to be free like a bird. It is he who repeatedly makes bad arguments for good causes and although he gets along well with the native people of the island, he doesn’t seem to understand them better than De Laage. One can’t help but wonder what his past is and how much of his statements have to do with wish fulfillment, especially regarding being free like birds.

Ironically, all of these arguments, disagreements, suffering and misunderstandings go for naught. The hurricane hits and it essentially puts those who survive back at square one. In a way, it highlights the futility of human interactions in the face of nature. Nothing matters once an act of God occurs but survival; everything else seems petty. It’s like the flood of Noah in how it wipes away all else.

The film is currently available on youtube and can be found at this link, here, and if you would just like to see just the hurricane, click here. Below is the trailer for the film.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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Beau Brummel (1924): Sentimentality in the Movies

_B2H7bQ_mk_KGrHqIOKiIE_THWFYoEBMhPel_Sh__3I cried and cried and cried. It was embarrassing. I didn’t look at my sister, but I could feel that she was crying, too. When the movie ended, we looked at each other to see how the other was affected. She had tears streaming down her face and I had tears streaming down my face. We laughed, smiled and finished our cry.

I never used to be a particularly sentimental person, but after our mother passed away some years ago, we turned into the most sentimental, sappy, mushy, cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat people you can imagine. And it is always the sappy movies that affects us the most. We never know kind of movie or book is going to touch us, I’m sometimes surprised: a movie might have tons of people die, but I won’t be affected, and then I’ll watching something else and turn into a basket case.

We’re not mushy about love stories and romance – we’re mushy about loss, death, and human suffering and loneliness. Beau Brummel – a silent movie made in 1924 – is about all of those things; a tragic romance. And since most movies don’t make me cry, I always feel any movie that does is worth looking at.

67astorsmithbeaubrummelI got Beau Brummel because I wanted to see Mary Astor and John Barrymore when they were younger…and Mary Astor is very young. Most remembered for her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the 1941 The Maltese Falcon and for her mother roles at MGM in movies like Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, she got her start in silent pictures in the early nineteen-twenties when she was fourteen. Her breakthrough role was Beau Brummel. John Barrymore had seen a picture of her in a magazine and requested her for his leading lady. He said he was attracted by the caption, which read “On the brink of womanhood.” She was only seventeen and he was forty-two, but they had a passionate affair during the making of the film, and it shows (which doesn’t always occur – I’ve seen many off-screen couples with zero onscreen chemistry).

John Barrymore began as a stage actor – known for his Hamlet – and did several movies, but made his first cinematic impact in 1920 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a surprisingly effective horror/drama. I’d heard people mention his profile a lot, it was practically a joke, but I had only seen in him Midnight (1939 and also with Mary Astor), when he was older and physically suffering the effects of alcoholism. But I now know what they mean. It is a lovely profile. He is more handsome from the side than face forward and he looks years younger.

beau-brummel_19147_1257Beau Brummel is a historical person and the movie follows his life, though with an added love interest. The movie begins when the wealthy daughter of people in trade, Lady Margery (Astor) is about to marry up in the world. However, her real love is Lieutenant Brummel. They meet just before the wedding, trading impossibly lovely profiles, and in despair they part. He vows to get revenge on society, the kind of society that would force her to marry where she does not love because he is the son of a tailor. HIs revenge is a little unusual, however, which is to crash into society, become an accepted member of society and be the beau ideal of how society should look, dress, talk, act…and he succeeds. He becomes the companion of the Prince of Wales (who would become George IV) and makes quite a few enemies in the process.

The story spirals tragically from here (though it starts out pretty tragic). He manages to offend the prince, among other people, and must go into exile in France. There is another tragic parting between him and Lady Margery. This time, she asks him take to her with him, but he refuses, presumably for the same reason he didn’t run off with her in the beginning…his lack of fortune.

Annex%20-%20Barrymore,%20John%20(Beau%20Brummel)_NRFPT_02He lives in abject poverty and ages badly and the only person who has stood by him is his devoted servant, Mortimer. When the Prince of Wales (now the king) arrives in France with a huge entourage – that includes Lady Margery – he watches, a broken man, as the procession goes by. Lady Margery later visits him, telling him that her husband has died and asks him to marry her. Once again he refuses. This times it’s because he’s broken, he no longer has the heart to be with her, he’s so beaten down by life that he feels he has nothing to give anymore and there is another one of those tear-inducing partings. It’s truly painful.

More years pass and one can only imagine the loneliness and unhappiness that these people have experienced. He is now old, mad and in a debtor’s prison. His servant, Mortimer comes to visit and Brummel does not initially recognize him. When he does, it is a moment so poignant and pathetic that I dissolved into tears right there and never stopped until some time after the movie ended. In her own home, Lady Margery dies and her spirit, young once again, sits up and steps out of her body and into Brummel’s cell. As Mortimer watches in terrible sadness as Brummel hallucinates, Brummel finally dies. His spirit, also his young and idealized self, rises from his body and joins Lady Margery.

It sounds sappy. I think my dad found it melodramatic because he left one-third of the way through, but truthfully, it is a very moving film. It’s like opera – grand and glorious and beautiful with powerful emotions expressed lyrically. It’s a lyrical movie. You can’t approach it like you would a contemporary film just as you cannot expect an opera to be like a contemporary musical. I like opera, so there’s obviously a little melodramatic streak in me. When I mentioned how sad Beau Brummel was, most people said, “I guess you won’t want to watch that again,” but truthfully, I would. I loved it! It’s truly a timeless romance – timeless for the characters and timeless for us.

th1LVSKCA2There is a wonderful artice on the Nitrate Diva, called “Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial.” It is a excellent look at the movie and how superficial things (like clothes and physical beauty and even movies) cannot always be separated from the deeper, spiritual things of life. There is also a bit about John Barrymore, what a dandy is, as well as an appreciation of Mary Astor, along with the story of her real life romance with Barrymore. It is a beautifully written article that goes a long way to showing why this movie has such an emotion impact. She writes of that ending when their spirits are united, looking as they did when they were both young:

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.”

th0RTUPBJIIt’s achingly beautiful, with a modern score that’ll have you in tears just listening to it. Most silent movies did not have a score written for them so when the DVDs are released they have to provide music and the one for Beau Brummel is particularly good.

I don’t know why, but sentimentality often gets a bad rap or is considered unsophisticated. Sound of Music is often labeled sugary and sentimental and excessively positive for being a musical made in the ’60s (as if the fact that it was made in the ’60s is the problem). Beau Brummel is likewise sentimental, though less happy. Mary Poppins is called sentimental. Stella Dallas, with Barbara Stanwyck, made me cry and is blatantly melodramatic and moving. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which wasn’t especially amazing, still had me crying hard at the end. Movies most likely to elicit an emotional response are these kinds of movies. I’ve talked to other people and they tell me it’s the same with them. It’s often the cheesy stuff that is most poignant. Somehow, these films touch on something fundamental within us, something in our souls, something universal.

Of course, one can’t live in a highly emotional state all the time, however cathartic it might be to cry sometimes. So my sister and I decided the next day to watch something unrelentingly upbeat and happy in Meet Me in St. Louis. Another sentimental movie, but happily so and it left us singing.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Movies

 

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Finishing a Good Book – Like Losing a Friend

IMG_1815Reading is a very companionable occupation. One can never feel alone while reading. It’s like making friends (hopefully good friends). As a result of this friendship, I am always conscious of regret whenever I finish a really good or engaging book. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend who is about to take a tour around the world.

Sometimes, the regret is because the book is very long and it took my several months to read it. This happened to me earlier in the year when I finished Don Quixote for the first time. I had all the memories of reading it in hospital waiting rooms and by my bedside and even though I was conscious of the desire to finish it – which always increases the closer you get to the end – when I actually achieved my goal it was bittersweet. I didn’t want to lay it aside, it felt so natural in my hands.

Another book that took me several months to read was The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. It didn’t take so long because it was boring, but because it was 800 pages and I have a habit of reading at least three books at the same time, usually a blend of fiction and non-fiction, two of which I cycle through as I read the longer book. I like to have different books for different occasions. Some books fit in purses better than others, non-fiction is usually better to read before going to bed because fiction can be harder to put down, some books I want to relish in absolute silence and solitude while others I am more willing to read in noisy places like a bus or waiting room or car.

I think it must be the sheer intimacy of reading – a complete immersion into somebody else’s ideas and story – but also the intimacy of holding the physical copy. I mean, most people even take their books to bed with them. You know what it feels like, you know how it looks. Holding the physical volume is comforting, especially when there is familiarity with the copy of the book.

Last week, I was trying to read Valerie Lawson’s biography of P.L. Travers and making dismal progress. My head kept telling me I ought to push on, while my heart wanted to chuck it. My heart won and I picked up two books which turned out to be both totally absorbing and highly informative. Sadly and happily, I read both so fast that it was a quick, but glorious, friendship.

The two books were A Life on Films, by Mary Astor, and Jane Austen: Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe.

I have very much come to appreciate Mary Astor as an actress. She is probably one of the most under-utilized actress I’ve ever seen, which is ironic since she made over a hundred films, but in many she had very little to do. One is always conscious that she could have done so much more. She chose never to be a leading lady (she said she didn’t want the stress) and never fought the studio for better parts as actresses like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck did. In her career she played the other woman, mothers (she must have a record for that), femme fatales, princesses (during the silent era), the understanding wife and practically every other kind of role that comes to mind. But she made many wonderful movies, many of which I love: The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me In St. Louis, Dodsworth, Midnight, The Palm Beach Story, Red Dust, Beau Brummel, The Prisoner of Zenda, Little Women.

When her movie career came to a close, she turned to writing. She wrote two biographies – one about her life and one about the movies she made – and several novels. Her autobiography in 1959 was about her life, her struggle with alcoholism and her conversion to Catholicism. A Life On Films is about her movies and it’s a highly absorbing book. She talks about making silent pictures, the awkward transition to sound and her memories about the movies, as well as many technical aspects of filming. There’s a lot about her method of acting and I must say that when I was finished reading I had tremendous respect for the artistry and technical prowess involved in acting. There’s also bits about the actors and directors she worked with, from Clark Gable to Judy Garland, John Barrymore, John Ford, William Wyler. If you like classic films, I highly recommend this book. It’s very entertaining and even more fun when you’ve seen many of the movies she refers to.

The other book I zipped through during the same week was Jane Austen: Game Theorist. I ordered it from the library because it looked intriguing, but I had never heard of game theory before. It evidently was developed during the Cold War and is the study of strategic thinking – the study of the decisions people make in calculation of what decisions other people will also make. It is a theory that assumes that people are choosing, making their own decisions – as opposed to being forced to do something by circumstances or preconditions.

Chwe argues that game theory, even though it was not called that, was intimately understood by authors like Austen and he proceeds to analyze all of Austen’s books in this light. It was absolutely fascinating. I’ve read some reviewers complain that his digressions at the beginning of the book about strategic thinking in African-American folk literature or during the Civil Rights movement is besides the point about Jane Austen, but I thought it was part of his overall point about how strategic thinking is important in literature – especially literature involving minorities, who have more to lose if they do not think strategically – and how it can be applied to life. His point is not just that you can use game theory to understand Austen’s books, but that Austen’s books can be used to teach – not clumsily, but subtly – about the kind of thinking we use in our own lives.

I enjoyed both books so much, I was extremely sorry when I finished them in the same day – the same afternoon, actually. I almost felt deflated, though also exhilarated at the experience. More friends gone. Reading is a constant cycle: meeting, getting to know, parting. At least, no book ever truly goes away. Every book becomes a part of you, in a way. It is a part of how you think, what things you think, part of your life experiences that we draw on.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2014 in Books, Literary Thoughts

 

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