Movies I’m thankful for… Wuthering Heights (dir. William Wyler, 1939)

Blogging around Thanksgiving can be tough. Unlike Halloween or Christmas, there really aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies, certainly none considered seasonal classics like the Universal horror lineup or It’s A Wonderful Life. However, there are plenty of movies I’m thankful for: movies that introduced me to a beloved artist, movies that remind me of a family member or friends, movies that I associate with a fond memory.

So I decided to highlight one such movie today: William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Why am I so thankful for this movie? Because it led me to what is now my favorite novel of all time, though not in the way you might expect… especially since I technically read Wuthering Heights before seeing the movie.

My introduction to Emily Bronte’s 1848 gothic masterpiece was typical of most readers: it was assigned reading during my senior year of high school. Now, today I am a great lover of what we call “classic lit.” Back then though? I hated pretty much everything for assigned reading in school, save for Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. Having to read what I considered depressing, confusing stuff during my three months off didn’t make me relish the likes of The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, or Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights especially drove me mad as it is a demanding work for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Set in 18th century England, the story centers on Heathcliff, an orphan foundling adopted into the Earnshaw family, who belong to the landed gentry. When his doting adopted father takes ill and dies, Heathcliff is left at the mercy of the Earnshaw heir Hindley, who forces him to the level of a servant. Heathcliff’s lone solace is his relationship with his adopted sister Catherine, a fellow free spirit who enjoys mischief and long hours on the nearby moors. Hindley’s attempts to keep the friends apart only serve to strengthen their kinship– that is, until Catherine catches the eye of handsome Edgar Linton, the heir of the nearby Thrushcross Grange. As much as she loves Heathcliff, Catherine is seduced by Edgar’s fine breeding and wealth, and opts to marry him so she can be the finest lady in the county and then use her newfound influence to take Heathcliff out of her brother’s power. Feeling betrayed by his one friend and unaware of her hope to rescue him from servitude, Heathcliff runs away, much to Catherine’s horror.

A few years pass before Heathcliff returns, now the owner of a decent fortune. Overjoyed, Catherine longs to resume their friendship, but Edgar isn’t fond of Heathcliff and Heathcliff has a mind to have his revenge on everyone that wronged him. And his vengeance is so great that it threatens to consume not just Catherine, Edgar, and Hindley, but also the next generation and even Heathcliff himself.

Covering roughly three decades, the book is not written in a conventional way: there is a framing story set in 1800, but much of the novel is presented in flashback, told by the former Earnshaw servant Nelly Dean, who, by the way, is not always the most unbiased narrator. Characters often have similar names (Edgar and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine; Heathcliff’s son by Isabella Linton is named Linton Heathcliff; Hindley has a son named Hareton), a device meant to emphasize a sense of cyclical repetition but one that only served to send me to Sparknotes constantly just to keep track of who was who.

And then there are the characters, who are almost uniformly unlikable. The books and movies I enjoyed featured main characters who were sympathetic and easy to root for, so I didn’t know what to make of Wuthering Heights, where victimized characters often become vicious victimizers and the central pair of lovers engage in obsessive, cruel behavior. Heathcliff is a particularly monstrous sort, treating others with sadistic relish once he comes into power and doesn’t have to take anyone’s crap anymore. Bronte initially makes it seem as though Heathcliff will be a diamond in the rough who can be transformed through love– and then she pulls the rug out under the reader, with his undying love for Catherine being the thing that only just barely makes Heathcliff seem vulnerable and human at all.

Honestly, I was too young to properly appreciate the uncompromising nature of the story or the psychological complexity of the cast. That, and I just wanted to spend hours on my PS2 and nowhere near some old book I’d have to write a report on before August. When I was done with the novel, I shoved the paperback in a drawer and never thought I’d ever touch it again.

Wuthering Heights entered my life again about a year later. Throughout senior year, I was in the early phase of my film geekdom and my way of sampling a variety of genres and eras was to go through the American Film Institute’s many curated lists. You know– the Top 100 American films, Top 100 Thrills, etc. Included on the Top 100 Passions list (a compilation of the best romantic American films) was William Wyler’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.

I don’t remember what my response was to seeing this title on the list. Probably an eyeroll. But I dutifully watched it… and wouldn’t you know, I was crying at the end and haunted by the film for weeks after seeing it. I literally stayed up all night thinking about it once. When that happened, I knew I had to reread the book.

And what do you know? I loved it and stayed up all night thinking of Bronte’s characters once again. I haven’t stopped thinking of them ever since.

Twelve years on and I still love Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. It’s a golden example of the exquisitely mounted melodramas the big Hollywood studios put out during the 1930s and 1940s. The black-and-white visuals perfectly evoke that desired gothic, haunted atmosphere in which ghosts chill the air and even the strongest love possesses undercurrents of yearning and pain. Director William Wyler creates a sharp contrast between the exteriors and interiors, mirroring the way Catherine is torn between her desire for the moors (where she and Heathcliff can be free of the class distinctions that keep them apart) and the seductive comforts of high society. But of course, the heart of the production is the chemistry between Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon– passionate, obsessive, and borderline sadomasochistic in their onscreen interactions. Both actors do well bringing these charismatic but infuriating people to life. That they have any chemistry at all is impressive, given that the two performers were reportedly at each other’s throats on set.

I know as a fan of the novel I’m supposed to hate this movie. As an adaptation, Wyler’s movie is hardly faithful to Bronte’s original. The setting was changed arbitrarily to the 1840s rather than the late 18th century purely on the whim of the producer Sam Goldwyn. The screenwriters toned down the nastiness of the characters. The entire second half of the book was cut from the script, thwarting the book’s focus on how abuse can beget more abuse and how the second generation of characters decide they will not repeat their parents’ mistakes.

Without the second half, it is true that the story loses much of the source material’s uniqueness and power, becoming a far simpler romantic drama about the unfairness of the British class system. If I have one big complaint about the film today, it’s that the ending seems so abrupt without the later stages of Heathcliff’s revenge. However, that might only seem so problematic to me because I am now thoroughly familiar with the novel. Back then, I was satisfied with the ending and other viewers might argue this ending works well in the context of the movie. Indeed, on its own merits, the film remains a beautifully mounted gothic drama, among the best of its era. I always enjoy seeing it– I prefer to think of it as a study in Wuthering Heights, much as Olivier saw his 1948 Hamlet film as “a study in Hamlet” due to its truncated nature.

Today, I am a certified Wuthering Heights junkie. I’ve read the novel over ten times and own several editions of the book. I’ve seen most of the film and TV adaptations. I’ve even watched the enjoyably cheesy 1996 Cliff Richard musical.

But all of that love only blossomed because the Wyler film inspired me to give the book another chance. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Happy birthday William Wyler

Today is William Wyler’s 120th birthday.

Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.

You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.

I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.

I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.


I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, so enjoy this small clip which demonstrates the assured direction and performances of this underrated movie.

Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.

The Collector

Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.

The Heiress

I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.

Short of the month: The Wizard’s Apprentice (dir. Sidney Levee, 1930)

During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.

Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.

Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.

While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.

One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.

An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.


William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis

“Never was a story of more woe,” a review of Romeo and Juliet (dir. George Cukor, 1936)

Image source: Leslie Howard fansite

People do crazy things for love.

In producer Irving Thalberg’s case, he wanted to give his wife Norma Shearer—then the undisputed queen of the MGM lot—the chance for the crowning artistic achievement of her career. The Boy Wonder desired to bring his favorite Shakespeare play to the screen: Romeo and Juliet, with Shearer starring as the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Though Shearer was in her mid-30s and completely lacking experience with Shakespearean drama, this did not deter Thalberg, who thought the part would allow her to reach new dramatic heights. He spared no expense, lavishing two million dollars on grand sets, gorgeous costumes, and an exhaustive shooting schedule. Several actors turned down the Romeo role, which eventually went to forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard. With bright stars, a high budget, and a classic tale at the heart of it, Thalberg expected a smashing success.

Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet was ultimately as star-cross’d as Shakespeare’s lovers. Though much ballyhooed before release, the film was indifferently received. While attendance was okay for a more moderately budgeted film, it was not nearly enough to cover this super-productions’s immense cost. Unlike the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (also known as “the one where Romeo looks like Zac Efron”) and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation, this Romeo and Juliet did not strike a chord with the zeitgeist beyond inspiring a vogue for “Juliet caps.” By the end of its run, the film lost almost one million dollars, failing to live up to Thalberg’s hopes. To make matters worse, Thalberg died shortly afterward, ending his career on a disappointing note.

Some derided movies gain prestige over time, with new audiences discovering their merits. This never happened to Romeo and Juliet. If anything, its reputation soured. The ages of the main cast members became more of an issue once Zeffirelli’s version famously used actual teenagers in the lead roles. The buttoned-up love scenes were absurd compared to the explicitness permitted in a post-code world. Shakespeare scholars scorn the film, finding it unimaginative. Norma Shearer fans positively resent its existence, feeling her overgrown Juliet takes away attention from her superior performances in better movies. On the whole, it’s a laughing stock, even among classic movie fans.

But is the movie all that bad? When approached with an open mind, is it a better experience than the critics say?

First, the elephant in the room—yes, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard are way too old to be playing teenagers. At youngest, Shearer could pass for a twenty-something, whereas Howard always looks like a man at the dawn of middle age. While more mature actors could get away with playing these roles on the safe distance of a stage (for example, nineteenth-century stage star Charlotte Cushman played Romeo well into her forties), the camera is less forgiving, even with flattering make-up and lighting.

Hot take: their ages aren’t as big a deal as people make them out to be.

Shearer and Howard might not pass for teens, but their chemistry was enough to get me to stop caring that they weren’t high schoolers. By the time they lock eyes at the Capulet ball, the two have me utterly sold. In the text itself, Shakespeare signals to the audience that the immediate attraction between Romeo and Juliet is something extraordinary by having the two speak a shared sonnet before their first kiss, and Shearer and Howard help sell this development with their body language. There’s a wonderful blend of sweetness and burgeoning passion in the both of them– especially Shearer, who portrays Juliet’s awakening sexual desire brilliantly.

Shearer’s performance here is often held up as antithetical to her more celebrated pre-code work. Pre-code historian Mike LaSalle derides her turn as Juliet with terms like “queenly” and “embarrassing,” but I find that her Juliet shares commonalities with her more famous roles. Shearer’s characters are often marked by dramatic transformations, usually related to defying society’s double standards, such as Jerry in The Divorcee, who “balances the books” when her husband casually cheats on her, or Elizabeth in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, who breaks from a controlling, possessive father to be with the man she loves.

Shakespeare’s Juliet is a triumph of characterization, going from a young girl willing to allow others to chart her life’s course to a bold young woman willing to sacrifice everything to pursue what she wants, even if it goes against the wishes of her family or the dictates of society itself (which, remember, demands daughters unquestioningly obey their fathers). Chasing her own desires, defying patriarchal authority—doesn’t sound too different from what Shearer was doing in the early 1930s to me.

Image source: Leslie Howard fan site

While Shearer’s acting dominates the film, Howard is no slouch, even though his take on Romeo takes a little getting used to for those of us reared on latter versions. Howard is quite subdued compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann version (“I AM FOR-TUNE’S FOOOO-OOOOOL!”). Howard’s schtick was playing sensitive, gentle guys, and his Romeo continues in this tradition, though he also gets to be the bold wooer familiar from the play, eagerly pulling Juliet to him moments after they lock eyes on the dance floor. While hotter blood might have improved certain scenes, Howard’s Romeo is nevertheless properly romantic through and through.

A common complaint is that the film renders this most horny of plays utterly sexless due to the constraints of the Production Code. Before rewatching the movie, the dominant image my mind associated with the film was Cukor’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital embrace: Juliet lays across the bed buttoned up to the chin and Romeo is draped across her with both feet on the floor.

Definitely a universe away from Zeffirelli’s nude scenes.

Color me shocked when upon revisiting the movie I found that the filmmakers snuck a great deal of spiciness past the censors. Mercutio’s “bawdy hand upon the prick of noon” line (accompanied by raucous laughter from the dirty-minded Nurse) is only the most audacious example. Mercutio still gets to conjure Romeo’s initial infatuation Rosaline by her eyes, forehead, lip, foot, leg, thigh, and “the demenses that there adjacent lie.” Juliet retains part of her pre-wedding night soliloquy, which is all about how eager she is to lose her virginity. Even the bedroom scene I just mocked has a bit more heat than I remembered. Howard is out of his doublet, and the actors share a languid intimacy that strongly suggests this Romeo and Juliet have done more than just lay around holding hands in the dark.

Most of the supporting cast is strong. Edna May Oliver is delightful as the bawdy Nurse, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt simmers with barely contained menace, and Reginald Denny exudes a calm presence as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. If I have any complaint, it’s with John Barrymore as Mercutio. By this point in his career, Barrymore’s image was on the verge of self-parody, and he was often uncooperative on the set due to his alcoholism. His Mercutio is less the life of the party than an unpleasant, overgrown frat boy on crack. The character’s famous “Queen Mab” speech is reduced to sped up nonsense, and the character’s dying moments lack the bitterness needed to sell it as a proper turning point in the story.

If the MGM Romeo and Juliet has a fatal flaw, it isn’t the actor’s ages—it’s the lack of an original vision for the story. I hate to keep making comparisons with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann adaptations, but they make a good contrast because they succeeded where MGM failed in having stronger takes on the material. Zeffirelli emphasizes the play’s themes of youth and age, highlighting the generational conflict and making the young people feel like ordinary teens in their idealism, self-absorption, and impulsiveness. Luhrmann makes extensive use of religious imagery and juxtaposes it against a violent, profane, and decadent setting, making Romeo and Juliet’s love more precious by contrast. These films make bold choices that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s text, but that’s part of bringing the Bard to life for new audiences.

The MGM film does not have any such “take” on the material. It keeps to the text without doing much to draw out particular themes or ideas, save for linking the lovers with pastoral imagery: Romeo is introduced listening to a shepherd sing in the hills, Juliet is introduced in an orchard feeding a pet deer like a Disney princess, and the lovers’ sexual consummation is depicted through a montage of nature imagery. Perhaps this is meant to contrast their love with the artifice of the city and the corruption it represents, but the film does little to develop that idea beyond its borderline noirish depiction of the apothecary’s shop. Thalberg famously flew in academics to oversee the production, claiming they were there to “protect Shakespeare from us.” He was terrified of doing it all wrong—he probably figured the script would take care of itself and that all MGM had to do was supply opulent visuals.

The film is certainly dripping with visual beauty—the magnificent sets and elaborate costumes were meant to evoke medieval Italian artists like Botticelli and Gozzoli– but it’s all empty spectacle that doesn’t do much to evoke the passionate, oppressive atmosphere of the play’s Verona. The nature of the production also put its director to a disadvantage. George Cukor did his best work with more intimate comedies and dramas. A larger canvas rarely yielded his best efforts. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, so much emphasis is already placed on the spectacle that the drama is often in danger of being pushed to the side altogether.

Undeniably, Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet is a labor of love, and this is both its greatest strength and ultimate undoing. The good there is comes from Howard and Shearer’s tender chemistry, luminescent and resonant despite their shared maturity. For advocates of 1930s Hollywood and the artificial but enticing soundstage worlds they conjured, Romeo and Juliet’s make-believe Verona is a visual treat. That it doesn’t fully stick the landing is a shame, since so much effort was poured into the endeavor– however, I don’t think those efforts were 100% wasted. I am reminded of an anecdote from the great Shakespeare scholar Northop Frye:

“… why is the story of the tragic love and death of Romeo and Juliet one of the world’s best loved stories? Mainly, we think, because of Shakespeare’s word magic. But, while it was always a popular play, what the stage presented as Romeo and Juliet, down to about 1850, was mostly a series of travesties of what Shakespeare wrote. There’s something about the story itself that can take any amount of mistreatment from stupid producing and bad casting. I’ve seen a performance with a middle-aged and corseted Juliet who could have thrown Romeo over her shoulder and walked to Mantua with him, and yet the audience was in tears at the end.”

For all its imperfections and interpretive timidity, I was still moved by the finale of this Romeo and Juliet. It might not be anyone’s favorite telling of the classic tragedy, but it still has enough treasures for anyone willing to give it an honest chance.


The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davies

George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy

Norma Shearer: A Life by Gavin Lambert

Norma: The story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence Quirk

On Shakespeare by Northop Frye

Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

I haven’t read a biography in a while, so I treated myself to Eve Golden’s book on silent screen legend John Gilbert. Being a silent film devotee, I’ve seen several Gilbert movies (would highly recommend The Big Parade and Flesh and the Devil), though I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan. I knew the rough outline of his life and the many, many conspiracy theories inspired by his swift, Norman Maine-like fall from the top of the industry with the coming of sound.

The picture Golden paints of Gilbert is intriguing. He was charming, generous, and lively, but also troubled, insecure, and often his own worst enemy. He fell in and out of love quickly, going through wives and lovers in rapid succession. He resented his mother for not showing him maternal love while being hands-off with his own children. He tended to badmouth the lucrative movies he was in to the press, much the chagrin of his home studio MGM. His drinking killed him before he had the chance to see his fortieth birthday.

Regardless, Golden thoroughly examines why he was such a beloved star at the time. Gilbert made for a swashbuckling, charismatic screen presence, and he was game enough to play unsympathetic roles when the opportunity came. His ambitions extended to directing and writing, though he had little opportunity to pursue the former and lacked the discipline to succeed with the latter. I was surprised to learn he was an avid reader, his personal library stocked with classics and nonfiction (Golden compares him to the similarly ill-fated sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in this regard). Though unsentimental about his flaws, Golden never makes Gilbert out to be pathetic nor does she adopt a judgmental attitude. She presents him as he was, and this very human portrait gives his biography the ring of tragedy.

For a long time, Gilbert’s eclipse was attributed to a falsetto voice. It’s an ironic idea and a tidy, simplistic explanation, which is probably why it’s stuck to Gilbert’s reputation for so long. I’ve come across people who have never touched a silent film in their lives who will still repeat the story of “that silent film star who had a high speaking voice.” However, it’s not the truth nor is it as interesting as what appears to have been the real cause of his decline.

Firstly, there was the cultural shift of the late 1920s. People often go with the “all silent film stars had no idea how to deliver lines AND they all sounded like Lina Lamont” myth, but in truth, the Depression, an influx of younger talent into Hollywood, and changing tastes had more to do with the fall of many a former screen favorite than their ability to speak lines into a microphone. Gilbert was no exception—he was a Great Screen Lover of the sort that was quickly falling out of fashion with the onset of the hard-edged 1930s. His voice, while shaky in early efforts, was perfectly fine by 1932 (see him in the underrated Downstairs if you don’t believe me). Unfortunately, by then the public lost all interest in him.

Golden pushes the case that Gilbert was talented enough to reinvent himself as a character actor in the 1930s since he yearned to go beyond the matinee idol phase of his career. However, Gilbert’s hardcore drinking, poor health, and unreliable behavior put off many studios. Throughout that whole section, I was sad thinking about what might have been, particularly a possible collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in Desire that was destroyed by a heart attack. While Gilbert insisted it was only severe indigestion, the incident frightened the suits into dropping Gilbert from the project.

Of course, Golden does not let the studios entirely off the hook either. She does not indulge ideas like Louis B. Mayer purposely sabotaging Gilbert’s career in the sound booth and effectively debunks the infamous “fistfight” story, but she does show that MGM had no incentive to nurture Gilbert during the rocky transition to sound nor did they bother to supply him with quality scripts. He was taking in a high salary at a time when the Depression was hitting movie studios hard, which prevented him from getting a high-profile leading lady that might have drawn in additional audiences. It’s a sad affair—even if Gilbert was the partial author of his own ruin, outside circumstances were certainly at play as well.

I did have one problem with the book. A major pet peeve of mine is when biographers feel the need to play movie critic. Golden offers her opinions of several films and stars, which jibbed too much with the scholarly tone the book was going for—and also felt unneeded. When I read a biography of a movie star or filmmaker, I don’t mind some interpretations on murkier parts of a person’s life (such as Golden’s modest speculations regarding Greta Garbo’s feelings toward Gilbert), but I don’t care to read any commentary on the quality of their work. It just feels like a waste of time and it’s not why I picked up the book in the first place.

I’ve come across some reviews that claimed this book offers little new information than Dark Star, a Gilbert biography written by one of his daughters in the 1980s. I haven’t read Dark Star, so I cannot comment there (yet), but as someone only casually interested in Gilbert, Golden’s book made me want to rewatch a lot of the man’s films and gave me a greater appreciation for what he was able to achieve during his all too brief tenure as Hollywood’s top romantic lead. It’s not among the top tier movie star biographies, but it is a good, balanced one I would recommend to the curious.

Short of the Month: Snow-White (dir. Dave Fleischer, 1933)

As always, I recommend watching Snow-White before continuing on to the article:

While pre-code cartoons tended to be a wild bunch in general both due to the permissiveness of the era and the exhilaration that came with new sound technologies, few were stranger than what came out of Fleischer Studios. Disney’s biggest competitor at the time, the typical Fleischer Studios product tended to be more hard-edged, provocative, and unapologetically strange than anything from the House of Mouse. Case in point: their Betty Boop series.

Betty Boop is about as pure a pre-code creation as they come. She was a bonafide cartoon sex symbol, and her design’s juxtaposition of the cute and the alluring contributed to her popularity. The cartoons in which she appeared certainly catered more to the grown-ups than the kiddies. Snow-White is a great example, with its jazzy music, non-sequitur comedy, and macabre imagery.

As in the original fairy tale, Betty is the fairest in the land and therefore targeted for death by a jealous step-mother. Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog weep as they prepare to dispatch her, but they take pity instead and Betty manages to escape, only to fall into an icy river. She re-emerges in an ice block (a stand-in for the glass coffin), which is taken by seven dwarfs into a “Mystery Cave.” And that’s about all there is of the original story, unless I forgot about a random musical number or the queen transforming into a dragon.

Snow-White is less of a conventional story than it is a bizarre dream. Every frame boasts some kind of gag or surreal flourish as characters morph into new forms. The whimsically ghoulish backgrounds in the “Mystery Cave” alone are something to examine on repeat viewings, from skeletons playing poker to monsters grinning from framed photos on the wall.

The early Fleischer cartoons were notable for featuring some of the top jazz talent of the 1930s. Snow-White boasts the legendary Cab Calloway performing the “St. James Infirmary Blues” through Koko the Clown. Calloway not only provided Koko’s singing voice, but also his smooth dance moves via rotoscoping technology. The result is the highlight of the short, an eerie mini-music video in which Koko morphs into a crooning, moonwalking ghost as he tails Betty’s impromptu funeral procession.

Intriguingly, the number is not a 100% non-sequitur when you consider the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Koko is following Betty in her frozen coffin, while “St. James Infirmary Blues” starts with the singer visiting the corpse of his lover in a hospital before musing on his own eventual death.

Somehow, this somber song suits this otherwise high-spirited short perfectly. Between the winter time setting, monochrome visuals, and the continued presence of death (threatened, assumed, or otherwise) throughout the seven-minute runtime, I even dare to say Snow-White is borderline cartoon noir, only it’s so playful that it keeps any true moodiness at bay. Even among the strange Fleischer canon, Snow-White stands out and deserves its place as a classic of animation.


Animation Anecdotes #150″ – Cartoon Research

BFI Film Classics: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Eric Smoodin

St. James Infirmary (1928)”

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

The best of times, the worst of times…

Image source: MUBI

Good riddance to 2021. Not betting much on 2022, but I’m gonna start it off with some movie watching. I got a decent sized pile of DVDs and Blurays for Christmas, so time to break them in with a cup of tea and a box of chocolates (I’ll get back to cutting down on sugar when the holidays end!).

My official first watch of 2022 is the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, a magnificent achievement in adapting Dickens for the screen. I saw this one on TCM some time ago and remember liking it. Coming back to it, I’m stunned by how well the filmmakers were able to condense the story down to two hours. It can be a bit overwhelming for those who have not read the book, but it’s not incomprehensible and moves at a good clip. By the time Darnay was tricked into going back to France, I was surprised at how much time had passed since I pressed play.

The movie makes a few changes from the novel, namely in buffing up the relationship between Sydney and Lucie. They actually feel like friends, whereas in the book Lucie seems to tolerate Sydney more than anything else. I also appreciate Elizabeth Allan’s performance– Lucie tends to set my teeth on edge in the book, while here she’s presented as a little less naive.

Really, all the actors are all exceptional. The 1930s acting style fits perfectly for Dickens’ stylized worlds, bringing more affected characters like Miss Pross, Madame Defarge, or Jerry Cruncher to more glorious life than a more “realistic and gritty” rendition would allow. Ronald Colman is particularly amazing, channeling both Sydney’s sardonic wit and tragic, self-loathing core.

Being a product of the mid-1930s– and therefore only half a decade into the 100% all talking era– A Tale of Two Cities features plenty of silent film style flourishes. Intertitles are used to transition between sections of the story. The repetition of Madame Defarge’s anguished “Why do you bear it?” during the Bastille sequence is something right out of the late silent period, yet it is a flourish that suits the intense drama of the sequence.

Watching this movie is to experience pure old-time movie spectacle: the sweep of actual, non-CG-generated crowds, elaborate costumes and sets, big emotions played out on a grand scale, no chance of a million sequels and spin-offs. Absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended.

Happy New Year’s, everyone!

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.

As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.

Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.

Warner with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source:

Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.

Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”

From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.

Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.

Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.

It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.


Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

“Thrill to the same idol who made your mothers’ hearts flutter wildly” – Revivals of the sheik movies in the 1930s

William Drew’s The Last Silent Picture Show really is a treasure of a book. Way too many people get their film history from (admittedly delightful) movies like Singin’ in the Rain, where it’s made to look like the talkie revolution occurred overnight. Most might even assume the American moviegoing public was content to let their silent favorites rot by 1930.

The actual history is far more complicated. In truth, silent films would sometimes get revived for Depression-era audiences, even after all theaters converted to sound. (Not to mention, silent films would still be produced in some Asian and European countries until the mid-1930s.)

Silent comedies were usually revived and given some level of respect– after all, you were supposed to laugh at them. Silent dramas were not so fortunate, at best treated as nostalgia items and at worst openly mocked as outmoded camp. However, there is an interesting case of silent drama revival I just have to share from Drew’s book.

“Show it– and machine guns wouldn’t keep the people away.”

It might surprise some that the two Rudolph Valentino sheik movies were revived throughout the 1930s. The popularity of the original Edith Hull novel and the 1921 movie adaptation had sparked a craze for desert romance in the 1920s, inspiring fashion trends and slang words like “sheik” and “sheba.”

By the time the talkies arrived, this fad mostly died out, though there were a few humorous treatments of the “sheik” theme, such as 1937’s The Sheik Steps Out with Ramon Novarro, a low-budget affair that converted the Hull novel from a racy melodrama to a screwball comedy and replaced the trembling Lady Diana with a wisecracking American heiress.

When Depression-era exhibitors put The Sheik on the bill, it was usually a bid for nostalgia. These showings did draw patrons, though The Sheik was mostly mocked as a “typical” silent film, what with Valentino’s bug-eyed antics and Agnes Ayres’ imitation of a fainting goat. Apparently forgetting that critics in the 1920s had the same issues with the film, it was held up as yet another example of how unquestionably, absolutely superior sound films were in terms of realism (for what that’s worth).

The hell with realism– realism would deny me fantastic reaction images like this!

Not everyone reacted this way, of course: Valentino still had a devoted cult fanbase and they did not appreciate snickers from fellow audience members or the accompaniment playing “The Sheik of Araby” to camp up the screening.

While The Sheik might have been enjoyed as a guilty and nostalgic pleasure (not unlike the reaction some have to Twilight these days), The Son of the Sheik was another matter. When a Washington DC theater revived that one in 1938, people rushed for seats.

Yes, you read that right! The “sophisticated” 1930s audience lined around the block to see a silent movie to the point where hundreds of patrons had to be turned away at the box office.  Inspired by this success, over five hundred theaters across the United States would revive Son and always to the same bewildered reaction that an “old movie” could be good. Not so bad it’s good, but genuinely well-made, entertaining, and holding its own against current releases. Even skeptical youngsters who had been kids when Valentino died were entranced.

A surprise success (all over again).

What won over an audience of people hostile to silent films? Comments from both critics and ordinary film-goers emphasized the film’s blend of hot-blooded drama and self-aware humor as the main ingredient for its continued appeal. Unlike the first movie, the sequel is aware it’s dealing in hokum. The actors are all in on the joke while still preserving the sense that vital things are at stake for the characters, a magnificent achievement.

And then there was the silver image of Valentino in his prime. Girls and women too young to have experienced Valentino mania thought he was just as appealing as Hollywood heartthrobs of the day. And of course, those who had loved him long ago felt that fangirlish fervor all over again. As one patron explained, “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him– I still love him.”

If there’s something to be gleaned from this anecdote, it’s that many people– even in the thick of the Golden Age of Hollywood– have turned their noses up at anything older than them or just perceived as “old” in general. This isn’t unique to millennials or Gen Z. Even during the silent era, audiences mocked the stage melodramas of their grandparents’ time.

Everyone thinks themselves more sophisticated then the storytellers who came before them, that their tastes are less “cringey” than the audiences of yesteryear. Sad, but seemingly inevitable. However, there are plenty of treasures from the past in every medium, waiting to be appreciated for those willing to take a chance on anything not made in the past five minutes.

On that note, read Drew’s book! It really is fascinating and filled with other interesting stories like this. In a way, silent films are given more love and attention now than they were immediately after sound arrived.