Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dan O'Bannon Passes On

Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter who wrote the screenplays for Dark Star, Alien, and Total Recall, passed Thursday at the age of 63. He had suffered from Crohn's disease for thirty years.

Dan O'Bannon was born on September 30, 1946 in St. Louis. He majored in fine art at Washington University in St. Louis, then attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. In 1970 he graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in film. It was while he was at USC that he met John Carpenter. Together they collaborated on a forty minute short entitled Dark Star in 1970. Together they expanded the short into the feature film Dark Star, released in 1974, with Carpenter directing and O'Bannon performing duties from scripting to editing. Although Dark Star bombed at the box office, it has come to be regarded as a cult classic. O'Bannon was part of the special effects team on Star Wars, working as a computer animator. He was set to supervise the special effects on an adaptation of Dune to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the project fell through. It was in the wake of this failed project that he wrote the screenplay for Alien. Unlike Dark Star, Alien proved to be a hit at the box office.

O'Bannon wrote two of the segments for the animated feature Heavy Metal. He also wrote the screenplay for Blue Thunder with Don Jakoby, and voiced his displeasure when the script was extensively rewritten. In 1985 Dan O'Bannon directed his first film, the cult horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, for which he also wrote the screenplay. From the Eighties into the Nineties he wrote the screenplays for Lifeforce, the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, Total Recall (with Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman), Screamers, and Bleeders. In 1992 he directed The Resurrected, based on H. P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. At the time of his death he was working on a script entitled The Pain Clinic.

Dan O'Bannon was among the most talented screenwriters of the past forty years. Working almost solely in the genres of science fiction and horror throughout his career, he scripted movies that were intelligent, thought provoking, and could be interpreted on multiple levels. He also had a knack for knowing what audiences would enjoy. His film Alien would produce an entire franchise, one that lasts to this day. The Return of the Living Dead would not only become a cult film, but would produce four sequels. Dan O'Bannon was one of those rare talents who could create entertainment that was not only intelligent, but would also prove to be popular.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Godspeed Jennifer Jones

Oscar winning actress Jennifer Jones passed yesterday at the age of 90. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Song of Bernadette and was nominated four other times.

Jennifer Jones was born Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 2, 1919. Her parents operated and were stars of the Isley Stock Co., a tent show which travelled the Midwest. While still in school she became interested in acting. She attended Monte Cassino Junior College in Tulsa, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

As Phyllis Isley she appeared in the John Wayne B Western New Frontier in 1939, as well as Dick Tracy's G-Men. Achieving little success in Hollywood, she returned to New York City where she worked part time as a model for the Powers Agency. Eventually she tested for David O. Selznick, who groomed her for stardom and gave her a new name--"Jennifer Jones." She was cast in the lead role of Selznick's production The Song of Bernadette. Not only was she nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film, but she also won. From the Forties into the Fifties, Jennifer Jones was at the peak of her career. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for four more films: Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun, and Love is a Many Splendoured Thing. She also made such films as Portrait of Jennie, Madame Bovary, Beat the Devil, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and A Farewell to Arms. 

Sadly, it was in the Sixties that Jennifer Jones career went into decline. In the Sixties she made only three films. She made only one in the Seventies, her last film appearance in The Towering Inferno.

While Jennifer Jones did not make a huge number of movies when compared to other actors, Despite this, she had a career which many actors would envy. It was not simply that she was nominated for a total of eight Oscars, but she appeared in some truly classic films. The Song of Bernadette, Portrait of Jennie, and Beat the Devil, among other movies, will remembered for years. While her career may have been shorter than other actors, Jennifer Jones had talent far exceeding most other actors as well. She will not be forgotten.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Top Twenty Actors

For quite some time, or so I have been told, there was a tag going around in which individuals were asked to name their top twenty actors. The lovely Kate Gabrielle recently posted her list on her blog Silents and Talkies and left the tag open to anyone who "want to jump on the bandwagon." Back in March, Millie posted her list of her top twenty actors on her blog, ClassicForever and asked anyone who hadn't been tagged to consider themselves tagged. Since I have apparently been tagged twice, I thought I would go ahead and present you with my list of my twenty favourite actors of all time. Here I must say I limited the list to movie stars, excluding such actors as Patrick McGoohan, Patrick Macnee, and Ricardo Montalban, whose fame primarily stems from television.

Note: For those of you who are wondering, I intend to eulogise the great Jennifer Jones, who died today at the age of 90, tomorrow. I am rather tired from work at the moment and I want to be in shape to give her the eulogy she so richly deserves.

1. Steve McQueen

Favourite Roles: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt

2. Sir Christopher Lee

Favourite Roles: Dracula (1958), The Wicker Man

3. Toshiro Mifune
Favourite Roles: Seven Samurai, The Samurai Trilogy

4. Marcello Mastroianni

Favourite Roles: La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2

5. Boris Karloff

Favourite Roles: Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat

6. Humphrey Bogart

Favourite Roles: The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep

7. Terence Stamp

Favourite Roles: The Collector, Superman II

8. Clark Gable

Favourite Roles: It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind

9. Jack Lemmon

Favourite Roles: The Apartment, How to Murder Your Wife

10. Cary Grant

Favourite Roles: Arsenic and Old Lace, North by Northwest

11. Gary Cooper

Favourite Roles: Meet John Doe, High Noon

12. Errol Flynn

Favourite Roles: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk

13. Gene Kelly

Favourite Roles: An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain (sorry, girls, I just had to use a picture of him with Cyd...)

14. Randolph Scott

Favourite Roles: The Last of the Mohicans, Ride the High Country

15. Sir Dirk Bogarde

Favourite Roles: Hot Enough for June, The Mind Benders, The "Doctor" Series

16. Jimmy Stewart

Favourite Roles: It's a Wonderful Life, Harvey

17. Leslie Howard

Favourite Roles: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion

18. Tyrone Power

Favourite Roles: The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan

19. Vincent Price

Favourite Roles: Laura, The Abominable Dr. Phibes

20. John Wayne

Favourite Roles: McClintock!, True Grit

Here I must state that absolutely no bias played a role in my choices. It is entirely a coincidence that two of the actors are named "Terence" and two are from Missouri.... If you haven't done this list yet, then consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gone with the Wind Turns 70

It was seventy years ago tonight that the movie Gone with the Wind made its debut, fittingly enough in Atlanta, Georgia. In January 1940 alone, Gone with the Wind averaged around $1 million a week, even though it played at less than 500 of the 17,500 theatres then in the United States. By the end of May 1940, when it completed its  run as a roadshow release, Gone with the Wind had already grossed approximately $20 million before it had even received a wide release. It remained the highest grossing film ever until May 1966 when it was overtaken by The Sound of Music. This having been said, when adjusted for inflation, to this very day Gone with the Wind remains the highest grossing movie of all time.

Gone with the Wind was based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. The novel had proven to be an unprecedented success in the same way that the movie would late be.Published in the summer of  1936, Gone with the Wind had already sold one million by that December. Curiously, Hollwyood took an interest in the novel before it was even published.  It was in May 1936 that producer David O. Selznick began the process of buying the rights to the novel. Eventually Mitchell sold the film rights to Gone with the Wind for $50,000, with 50,000 more dollars paid later.

Even as Selznick was in the process of buying the rights to the novel, he was considering actors for the various roles. In retrospect the actresses initially considered for the role of Scarlett do not seem suited to the part today: Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, or Bette Davis. Initially either Franchot Tone or Ronald Colman were considered for the role of Ashley Wilkes and Janet Gaynor as his wife Melanie. The very first actor that David O. Selznick had in mind for Rhett Butler was Clark Gable. This having been said, others were considered .Gary Cooper was also considered for the role, but he turned it down because he thought the movie would be the biggest flop in history. Ronald Colman was also considered for the role of Rhett Butler, although ultimately Selznick decided he was wrong for the part. Errol Flynn nearly had the role of Rhett Butler. A contract was even drawn up for Warner Brothers to lend Flynn to Selznick, but in the end Flynn was not cast in the role.

Ultimately, it was Clark Gable who was cast as Rhett Butler. He signed the contract to play the part on August 25, 1938. It was the film's original director, George Cukor. who asked Olivia de Havilland to audition for the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. She did a reading for Cukor and he cast her in the role. Unfortunately, there was one hurdle she had to overtake before she could play Melanie: her contract wtih Warner Brothers. Jack Warner initially refused to loan her to Selznick, even though she begged him to let her take the role. She finally had to talk to his wife, Irene, who intervened with Warner on her behalf. British actor Leslie Howard was cast as Ashley Wilkes, a part with which he was very uncomfortable. Howard felt that he was much too old for the role, and in the end Selznick had to give him an associate producer credit on Intermezzo: a Love Story before he would take the role.

While Selznick initially considered various actresses for the role of Scarlett, in the end he put out a national casting call for someone to play the role. Katherine Hepburn practically demanded Selznick give her the role to which the producer responded, "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for ten years (arguably, Hepburn was probably too much of a Yankee to be convincing as Scarlett, despite her considerable talent). Many famous and soon to be famous actresses did screen tests for the role, including Tallulah Bankhead (who Selznick decided was too old for the role),  Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Linda Lee, Anita Louise, Alicia Rhett (who was ultimately cast as Ashley's sister India) , and Lana Turner. Colour screen tests were only made of two actresses: Paulette Goddard (who tested several different times for the role) and a British actress unknown in the United States named Vivien Leigh. Cast in the role of Scarlett, she signed her contract on January 16, 1939.

Even before Selznick bought the rights to the book, George Cukor was hired to direct Gone with the Wind. For two years he worked on the pre-production on the film, including overseeing the film tests in the search for Scarlett O' Hara. Cukor would not remain with the project to its end. Contrary to popular belief, Cukor does not appear to have been fired because Clark Gable was uncomfortable around him. Instead, it appears that Selznick dismissed Cukor apparently out of dissatisfaction with the director's slow pace of working. He was replaced by Victor Fleming. Curiously, Fleming also replaced Cukor on the second highest grossing film of 1939, The Wizard of Oz. Even after being dismissed from the film, Cukor continued to privately coach Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.

As might be expected of a movie based on a 1037 page novel set in the American South before, during, and after the War Between the States, the shooting of Gone with the Wind was a major undertaking. Its production costs were estimated at $3.9 million. At the time only Ben Hur (1925) and Hell's Angels cost more to make. The first scene to be shot was the burning of Atlanta on December 10, 1938, arguably the most complex scene in the entire movie. The pieces of film history that were used as fuel for the fire in the scene would cause most modern film buffs dismay. Many old sets were actually burned in the sequence, including the great wall from RKO's King Kong (1933) and the sets from Selznick's own The Garden of Allah. Reportedly, film prints were even used to fuel the fire, the nitrocellulose film base being particularly flammable. As a result, many old films could well have been burned in the fire and hence forever lost. Since the film did not yet have a lead actress, doubles were used for both Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the scene. The fire was so huge that Culver City's phone lines were jammed by people making calls on the assumption that MGM was actually burning down. Ultimately, the shooting of the burning of Atlanta cost $25,000, with 113 minutes of footage shot. It also utilised all ten of Hollywood's Technicolour cameras at the time. Should the fire have gotten out of hand, fifty studio firemen and 200 studio employees stood by, with ten pieces of fire fighting equipment borrowed from the Los Angeles Fire Department. To put out the flames it took no less than three 5,000 gallon water tanks.

Other scenes would also provide the production crew of Gone with the Wind with difficulties. The scene in which Scarlett looks for Dr. Meade called for her to make her way through 2,500 injured and dying Confederate soldiers. This presented the production team with a problem as the Screen Actors Guild only had 1,500 extras available at the time. To make the crowd of soldiers look even larger, 1,000 dummies were then scattered among the extras. Another problem the scene presented was that Selznick wanted a camera mounted on a crane a hundred feet in the air to track Scarlett. No studio, not even MGM, had a crane that large at the time. Fortunately, production manager Ray Klune came up with the novel solution of borrowing a crane from a construction company, and then utilising a ramp so that the camera would move smoothly.

The hard work necessary in making a movie the size and scope of Gone with the Wind took a toll on those who worked on it. Indeed, at one point David O. Selznick was faced with the possibility of finding another director. The day came when Victor Fleming, after a disagreement with Vivien Leigh during rehearsal, he threw down his script in a huff, walked out of the studio, and went home. The next day word came that the director had a nervous breakdown. Selznick contacted Fleming's doctor and found out the truth. While Fleming was certainly tired, frustrated, and angry, he did not have a nervous breakdown. Instead, Fleming was angry at what he saw as Selznick's constant interference with the picture. Fleming and Klune then met and decided that the best way they could get Fleming to return to the movie was to replace him with another director. As a result,  Sam Wood (who had directed the Marx Brothers' classic Night at the Opera) was brought in to direct Gone with the Wind.

It was after two weeks that Victor Fleming returned to Gone with the Wind. This did not mean that Sam Wood's work on the movie was over. Instead, Selznick kept him on the movie to direct many of its scenes. While only Victor Fleming directed Clark Gable, Sam Wood would direct many of the scenes with Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. This took a bit of a toll on the two actresses, as they might shoot a scene with Fleming in the morning, and then another for Sam Wood in the afternoon. The actors often worked from early in the morning to late at night. Leslie Howard found himself in even more of a bind in that he was set to star in Intermezzo as well as act as an associate producer on the film. Even with Gone with the Wind still shooting, the starting date of Intermezzo could not be moved back. As a result, Leslie Howard found himself playing two parts at once--Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and Holger Brandt in Intermezzo.

Shooting on Gone with the Wind ended July 1, 1939. The movie ultimately featured over 50 different speaking parts and used 2,400 extras. In making Gone with the Wind 500,000 feet of film was shot, which was edited down to 20,000 feet. As of July 1939, the initial rough cut of the film ran four and half hours, which is 48 minutes longer than the film as it was released.

Anxious to get an audience's reaction to his film, David O. Selznick arranged for sneak previews of Gone with the Wind in September 1939. At this point the film was not quite complete. Max Steiner's music score was missing, as well as some of the special effects. It also lacked a title sequence, so one was created especially for the sneak previews. The first of the previews was held at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California on September 9, 1939. That night the Fox had scheduled a double feature of Hawaiian Nights and Beau Geste. After Hawaiian Nights had ended, however, it was not Beau Geste that the audience saw. Instead the audience was informed that they would see another movie, that no one would be permitted to leave after the movie had begun, and no phone calls could be made out of the cinema. The audience's reaction to the film was enthusiastic. The second and final sneak preview for Gone with the Wind was held at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, California. The procedure was the same there, as was the audience's reaction. Even when the film was not fully completed, it received enthusiastic reactions from audiences.

On December 15, 1939, Gone with the Wind made its premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta's Mayor William B. Hartsfield arranged for three days of festivities in the city leading up to the film's debut. Governor Eurith D. Rivers declared December 15, 1939 a state holiday. Nearly a million people attended the festivities in Atlanta leading up to the premiere. The front of the Grand Theatre, where the film premiered, was given decorative pillars so that it resembled Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes family plantation house. The Grand Theatre only seated 2,500 people, which meant that not everyone who wanted to attend the premiere could. Indeed, in the last few hours before the film's premiere, scalpers were selling tickets for as high as $200.

While the premiere of Gone with the Wind was a huge event for Georgia and much of the South, it was not without controversy. Segregation still existed in Georgia at that time, so that Hattie McDaniel nor any of the other African American actors could attend the premiere. This so incensed Clark Gable that he very nearly insisted on not attending the premiere. It was Miss McDaniel herself that convinced him to attend.

From its premiere in Atlanta, Gone with the Wind went onto become the most phenomenally successful film of all time in terms of box office gross. It also did very well at the Academy Awards in 1940. The film was nominated for a then unheard of 13 Oscars, of which it won eight. It became the first all colour motion picture to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. It also remains the longest movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, at 224 minutes. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American not only to win an Academy Award, but to even be nominated for one. Gone with the Wind would also see the first posthumous awarding of an Oscar. Screenwriter Sidney Howard, who had died in an accident in August 1939, won the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay.

Gone with the Wind was of such size and scope that it literally changed the careers of people. This was most obvious in the case of young English actress Vivien Leigh. Prior to Gone with the Wind, Leigh was primarily known in the United Kingdom. The only film in which she appeared which received very much attention in the United States was A Yank at Oxford, With Gone with the Wind she achieved international stardom. She not only won the Oscar for Best Actress, but also the New York Film Critics Circle award as well. She would go onto appear in such films as Waterloo Bridge, Anna Karenina, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Ship of Fools.  

Gone with the Wind did not simply change the career of the actress who won the role of Scarlett O'Hara, but even those who had tested for the part. Paulette Goddard was Leigh's chief contender for the role. She did achieve stardom  in 1938 and 1939 with supporting roles in The Young at Heart, Dramatic School, and The Women, but it seems likely that it was the fact that she nearly won the role of Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind that led to a contract with Paramount Pictures. For much of the Forties Goddard would be a major star. Testing for the role of Scarlett O'Hara may have also helped the career of Lana Turner. Prior to Gone with the Wind, the young starlet had appeared in roles in such films as They Won't Forget and Dramatic School. It seems significant that after Gone with the Wind she was appearing in lead roles, often in prestige pictures such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Perhaps no other actress's career was changed as greatly by Gone with the Wind as that of Susan Hayward. In 1937 she went from New York to Hollywood in hopes of being cast as Scarlett O'Hara. While she did not win the role, she did receive a contract with Warner Brothers. Gone with the Wind would also be significant in the career of George Reeves, one day to play Superman. Cast as Stuart Tarleton (although erroneously credited as Brent Tarleton on screen), it was George Reeves' first credit on screen.

It was not simply actors whose careers were impacted by Gone with the Wind. Sam Wood had been a director since 1920, having directed such films as the Marx Brothers' classics A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, as well as the classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Following his stint on Gone with the Wind, however, Wood's career shifted towards visually stunning period pieces, including Our Town, King's Row, Ivy, and Pride of the Yankees. Gone with the Wind would have even more of an impact on Val Lewton, who served as story editor on the film and even had a great deal of input on the burning of Atlanta scene. It was Lewton's experience working on such films as A Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, and Rebecca that led RKO to sign him as a producer in charge of unit to make B-horror movies. Quite simply, without Gone with the Wind, we might not have Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, or Bedlam.

Almost from its debut, Gone with the Wind has been hailed as a classic. And I must confess that it is one of my favourite films of all time. That having been said, I also recognise that it is a flawed classic. Indeed, perhaps the worst sin committed by Gone with the Wind is its portrayal of race relations in the South before, during, and after the War Between the States. The movie presents an overly simplistic and entirely unrealistic view of the relationship between African Americans and European Americans in the antebellum South, presenting loyal, happy slaves serving largely benevolent masters. We know from history this was not the case. Worse yet, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar notwithstanding, every African American in the film is a stereotype. In Gone with the Wind African Americans fall into two types:  intelligent but loyal to a fault (Mammy and Big Sam) or childlike and none too bright (Prissy and Pork). While Selznick did consult with the NAACP, it would seem that he presented what was a highly traditional and unrealistic view of African Americans in the antebellum South, one that is offensive today. Of course, here  I suppose we must consider that Gone with the Wind merely reflects the times in which it was made. The 1938 Bette Davis Jezebel offers the same overly simplistic and unrealistic view of race relations in the Old South, as well as the same stereotypes. It must also be pointed out that in comparison to other portrayals of African Americans at the time, in many respects Gone with the Wind was fairly mild. After all, this was the era of Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Mantan Moreland, and Amos and Andy.

While many have noted the offensive portrayal of race relations in the antebellum South as presented by Gone with the Wind, I have not known many people to raise an objection to what I consider a case of miscasting in the film. Leslie Howard did not feel that he was right for the part of Ashley Wilkes, believing that he was neither young enough or beautiful enough for the role. Here I must disagree with Howard to a degree. He was a truly great actor, one of such calibre that he could play almost any age and be convincing. I also have to disagree with Howard that he was not beautiful enough to play Ashley. He always seemed like a decent looking chap to me, and I know women who think he was downright handsome. I do have to agree with him that he was miscast as Ashley, but for an entirely different reason. Quite simply, Leslie Howard was much too powerful a personage to play Ashley Wilkes, and not nearly  bland enough to do so. Ashley is a man who simply could not make up his mind. He loves Melanie and yet he is obsessed with Scarlett. He does not sympathise with the cause of the North, and yet he is not particularly fond of the cause of the South either. It is perhaps because of this that Ashley does not seem to have much of a personality, or at least not a very interesting one. It seems to me that the choice of the man who played such iron willed characters as Sir Percy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Captain Fred Allison in Captured, and even Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion to play a milquetoast such as Ashley Wilkes is a strange one. Perhaps I am too much of a Leslie Howard fan, but I do not find him convincing as Ashley.

Despite its flaws, some of which are very serious flaws, I must confess that I still love Gone with the Wind. Much of this is due to the same reason many people love Gone with the Wind. It is an epic love story set during what may well be the most turbulent period in American history. That having been said, Gone with the Wind also resonates with me in a way that I suspect it does not for those born in the North. As a Southerner I can say that there is much that I find in Gone with the Wind that is familiar to me, someone born over 100 hundred years after the movie takes place. Thankfully, the South has changed a good deal since the times of Gone with the Wind. Slavery is a distant memory and, while racism still exists, African Americans are not nearly as oppressed in the South in 2009 as they would have been in 1873 (when the movie ends).

That having been said, there is much in Gone with the Wind that still rings true today. To a degree there are aspects of Southern society that have changed little since the time in which the movie was set. Those watching the movie for the first time might be surprised that Scarlett's mother, Eileen O'Hara, wields a great deal of authority on Tara. It is to her that the plantation's overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, reports, not Scarlett's father. She is not only responsible for running the household, but the plantation itself. To a large degree this reflects the division of responsibilities in my own family and that of many people I know. It is the women, not the men, who do much of the business, who effectively run the household. I can only guess that this is how Southern families have always operated, women holding the reins of power even before the days of Women's Liberation.

Another aspect of Southern society in Gone with the Wind which still seems to hold true today is the extreme politeness. It is not simply that individuals are addressed as "ma'am" and "sir" in the film, women are addressed by the title "Miss" and men by the title "Mister."  Scarlett is not simply called "Scarlett," she is called "Miss Scarlett." Rhett is not called "Rhett," he is "Mister Rhett." To a large degree this holds true even today. At my workplace, with its high tech computers, printers, and fax machines, my best friend at work is often referred to as "Miss Georgia." It is not unusual for co-workers to address me as "Mr. Terry."  To some degree the politeness that existed at the time of Gone with the Wind still exists in the South.

Ultimately, however, I must say that Gone with the Wind resonates with me because to a large degree it portrays a  part of my history, much in the same way that the English Civil War and the American Revolution are part of my history. Missouri endured many of the same hardships that Georgia did during the War Between the States. The town of Osceola was burned in much the same way as Atlanta historically and in the film. The death toll of the war as portrayed in Gone with the Wind held true for Missouri during the War Between the States. The war cost the lives of around 27,000 Missourians, both soldiers and civillians. This is more than World War I (in which 11,172 Missourians died) . And just as the O'Haras went through economic hardship both during and after the war, so too did many Missourians. Although Gone with the Wind is very historically inaccurate in its portrayal of race relations in the antebellum South (so much so as to be offensive), its portrayal of the War Between the States and its impact on the South rings fairly true.

While Gone with the Wind has its flaws, the film has been considered a classic to this day. Much of this is perhaps due to what lies at the centre of the movie--the torrid romance between the roguish Rhett Butler and the fiery Scarlett O'Hara. Indeed, it seems quite likely that Rhett and Scarlett are the most famous screen couple of all time, even more so than Rick and Ilsa of Casablanca. Anyone who has been in love can sympathise with Rhett as he finds himself desperately in love with Scarlett O'Hara, but never quite able to have her, even after they marry. Beyond the sheer size and scope of the movie, beyond its setting in the South before, during, and after the War Between the States, at its heart Gone with the Wind is a love story, one that is well acted, well written, and well directed. It is perhaps for this reason it remains a classic to this day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lillie Langtry

Almost since the advent of film, motion pictures have propelled actors into dizzying heights of fame. Stars from eighty years ago are still remembered today, even though their last films may have been made in the Twenties. Among the most famous actresses in history, however, only made one movie. Her fame rested entirely on her work on stage, the many paintings and photographs of her, as well as her sometimes scandalous private life. She was Lillie Langtry, the "Jersey Lily."

Lillie was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey, Channel Islands on October 13, 1853. Her father was Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey. Her mother, Emile, was well known for her beauty. Lillie was the only daughter in a household full of six brothers. As a result she was very much a tomboy, riding horses bareback and joining in with her brothers in their shenanigans. It also instilled in her an independent streak she maintained for her whole life. Indeed, she proved far too much for her French governess to handle and as a result was educated by her brothers' tutor. She was nicknamed "Lillie," short for Emilie, while still young. By her teens she was already acknowledged as the most beautiful girl in Jersey.

It was in 1874 that she married Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother in law of her brother William. She eventually persuaded Langtry to take her to London. It was when the couple was invited to the home of one of her father's friends, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, that her beauty was first noticed in London. Before the end of the evening artist Frank Miles had already sketched her; the sketches would appear on a series of very popular postcards. Her intelligence and beauty earned Lillie invitations to many other soirées and parties. She soon became the toast of London.

She also became very popular as an artist's model. In 1878 Sir John Everett Millais painted her portrait, entitled A Jersey Lily (even though in the painting Lillie is actually holding a Guernsey lily, as no Jersey lilies were available). She also sat for architect and artist Sir Edward Poynter and appeared in works by painter and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Talk of Lillie's already legendary beauty eventually reached the ears of Albert Edward the Prince of Wales. In 1877 the Prince arranged a dinner party at home to which Lillie was invited. Lillie was seated beside the Prince, while Edward Langtry was seated at the other end of the table. Like many men of the time, Prince Albert was enchanted by Lillie. It was not long before she became his mistress. So enamoured of Lillie was the Prince, that he even started work on the Red House (now the Langtry Manor Hotel) in Bournemouth, Dorsetas their own private love nest. He even let Lillie design it. The affair would not last, and ended in 1880. Reasons given for the end of Lillie's affair with the Prince of Wales vary. According to one report, Lillie incurred the Prince's ire when she wore the same outfit as him to a fancy dress party and Lillie, headstrong as ever, refused to apologise. Other reports claim that Lillie's place in Prince Albert's heart had been taken by actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had arrived in London in 1879. Regardless, the affair was over by 1880.

It was that same year that it became apparent that Edward Langtry was deep in debt, although it is unclear if he was actually bankrupt. Regardless, Lillie soon realised she needed a means of supporting herself. With only a few options open to women at the time, Lillie entered the theatre at the suggestion of Oscar Wilde. It was iin December 1881 that she made her debut in the play She Stoops to Conquer. Although reviews of Lillie's acting were often mixed at best, it brought her even more fame. Indeed, such was Lillie's fame that she became of the first actresses, perhaps the first, to make commercial endorsements. Lillie endorsed products ranging from Pears soap to American Eagle tobacco.

It was in 1885 that Lillie Langtry toured with her own company, becoming famous in the United States as she was in the United Kingdom. Men were just as enchanted with her in the States as they had been in Britain. Among her fans was Judge Roy Bean. Not only did he name his saloon "the Jersey Lily" in her honour, but he also named the town of Langtry, Texas in her honour as well. After the judge's death, Lillie would visit the town named for her. It was in 1887 that Lillie became an American citizen. A year later she divorced Edward Langtry. In the States she would become involved in both a winery and thoroughbred horse racing. She would return to the London stage in 1897. In 1901 she retired from the stage, only to appear on vaudeville later. In 1916 she made her only film appearance.

Lillie Langtry died in Monaco on February 12, 1929 at the age of 75. She was buried in the graveyard of the church where her father had been rector, St. Saviour's Church in Jersey.

Lillie would ultimately prove to have the greatest influence on pop culture of any actress of her era. It is widely believe that the character of Irene Adler, the one person to best Sherlock Holmes, was based on her. She has appeared as a character in several movies, including The Westerner (1940), The Trials of Oscar Wilde, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (where she was played by Ava Gardner). She has also appeared on television programmes, including episodes of Edward the Seventh and Oscar. In 1978 London Weekend Television dramatised her life in the mini-series Lillie. She also appeared as a character in the Western novel Slocum and the Jersey Lily by Jake Logan and the Victorian novel Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige.

It also seems fairly clear that the song "Pictures of Lily" by The Who was written for her. In the book Lyrics by Rikki Rooksby, Pete Townshend claimed that the song was inspired by a postcard of an old Vaudeville star he referred to as Lily Bayliss, that a girlfriend had hung on his wall. That having been said, there was no Vaudeville star named Lily Bayliss, only theatre manager Lilian Bayliss, whose looks would not be likely to inspire a song about pin up pictures. It seems more more likely that the "Lily" of the song is Lillie Langtry, particularly given the lyric "She's been dead since 1929." Certainly, the young man of the song would not be the first to become enamoured by pictures of Lillie.

Lillie Langtry is still well known today, when many actresses of her time are forgotten. She pioneered celebrity commercial endorsements, and was a woman who made her own way at a time when few women did. Celebrated for her beauty, she created the sort of hysteria that only a few movie stars and rock stars would later. That she did so is a tribute not simply to her beauty, but her intelligence and independence as well.