GONE WITH THE WIND Podcast
Hello and welcome to the Classic Film Club. Richard Kuipers here with you, I’m a critic for the international trade paper Variety, film festival programmer and documentary producer. I’ve loved movies since my mother took me to see BORN FREE a million years ago and I’m especially interested in films that have attained classic status and looking at how they play in 2020. Has time treated them well? Have some lost their magic over the years – have some aged really well? … and how have their messages and meanings been affected by the march of time.
Digging into the vaults of cinematic treasures is a fascinating experience to say the least. It’s like pulling out records you may have loved in your younger days but haven’t played for a long while. If they still sound great – great! If not it can be sobering as you realise that the music is still the same … but how you hear it has changed. I’m doing just that, right here, re-watching famous, highly acclaimed movies and casting a critical eye on their merits and shortcomings in the cultural, social and political times in which we live. That’s the main focus of The Classic Film club but we’re also here to celebrate films that may not be famous titles most people recognize, but are lesser-known gems that might have followings among buffs and critics – and deserve to be more widely known and seen. I also love a guilty pleasure, so stay tuned as well for our trash and treasure segment when I pull out diamonds from the dustbin and tell you why they’re essential viewing!
But first, let’s tackle one of the most famous, awarded, and profitable films of all time, which has lately become one of the most problematic films of all time. GONE WITH THE WIND, the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 best seller about the on-again, off-again romance of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in the Southern state of Georgia before, during and after the American civil war. Mitchell’s book ranks second only behind the Bible as America’s most-read book. The film, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable is one of the most-viewed American films. It’s especially good to be looking at it again after everything that’s happened socially and politically in recent times, and particularly in light of the roles played by Georgia and its capital city Atlanta in the recent US election.
On the 10th of June 2020 US Cable service HBO pulled GONE WITH THE WIND from its schedule. Amid the growing momentum of Black Lives Matter, and in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s death, many TV shows were also withdrawn from streaming and pay TV services around the world. You might remember an episode of Fawlty Towers, and the Little Britain series coming under fire. Netflix in Australia and New Zealand removed four shows created by and starring Australian comedian Chris Lilley - Jonah From Tonga, Angry Boys, Summer Heights High and We Can Be Heroes. When GWTW was reinstated uncut by HBO Max two weeks after being removed it included a four-minute introduction regarding racial stereotypes and the film’s historical context.
These discussions are valuable and important, and I was pleased to see Foxtel Australia add the following text information when I watched it recently. In full it said “GONE WITH THE WIND is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that, unfortunately, remain commonplace in sections of society. We present this film in its original form. Scenes which depict racism are not endorsed by Foxtel.” No-one should endorse racism let alone practice it, but what does that mean when we approach GONE WITH THE WIND – not to mention many other films made during less enlightened times. If we were to list every Hollywood movie that endorsed racism or demeaned and belittled non-white characters we’d end up with thousands and thousands of titles. So - should we even watch GONE WITH THE WIND? and if we do how does it play 80 years later? There’s no way GONE WITH THE WIND could be made today but does that mean it should be dismissed from the ranks of Hollywood’s greatest achievements? Well, yes and no. There are good arguments on both sides of this cinematic equation and I found watching GONE WITH THE WIND in 2020 to be a very contradictory experience. In this meeting of the Classic Film Club I’ll examine those complex impressions, but first let’s get to the basic facts of the matter.
A Selznick International production in association with MGM, GONE WITH THE WIND was released in Hollywood’s golden year, 1939. There had never been a year like it before and there probably never will be again. THE WIZARD OF OZ, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DARK VICTORY, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, NINOTCHKA, OF MICE AND MEN, LOVE AFFAIR and STAGECOACH. I mention all these films because in 1939 they were also nominated alongside GWTW for the Oscar category of “Outstanding Production” – which eventually became the “Best Picture” award in 1962. Against this opposition GONE WITH THE WIND won 10 Oscars – Eight in competitive sections including “Outstanding Production” and two honorary awards. In the US alone it was re-released in 1942, 1947, 1954, 1967, 1974, 1989, and 1998. As recently as 2019 it was re-released in cinemas in Taiwan. As of 9 December 2020 it has a staggering 287,140 votes on the Internet Movie Database, 28 per cent of which rate it ten out of ten. It comes in at number 167 on IMDB’s top film ranking. It was probably higher a few years ago but 167 is still highly impressive when you consider the tens of thousands of films listed on IMDB.
So, we can say that GONE WITH THE WIND has longevity but what about its durability in a social climate that’s so different from when it played publicly for the first time at Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia on December the 15th 1939? Let’s also remember that when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar – for her supporting role as Scarlett’s loyal maid Mammy – she was forced to sit at a table at the back of the room during the awards ceremony at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. And that was after David O. Selznick pulled in a big favour to allow McDaniel into the room in the first place. Even before the film went into production, the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People – became actively involved, attempting to keep the novel’s most offensive depictions of African-Americans out of the final script. While it’s offensive to see slaves presented as basically happy with their lot and toiling hard without complaining about being owned by white people - as if they were the same as livestock - many of the novel’s worst excesses were modified and the film could have been much worse on this front.
The reason for GONE WITH THE WIND’s existence is to present a romantic, honorable and soul-stirring vision of the South, slavery and the Confederate cause. “A Land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields” it says on the opening titles that sweep across the screen in huge letters following the logo of Selznick International Pictures – a logo that looks like it could be a southern mansion from the film we’re about to watch. “Here in this pretty world gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of master and of slave. It is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization Gone With the Wind.” That prologue was supplied by Ben Hecht, one of an army of writers including Jo Swerling, Charles MacDonald and F. Scott Fitzgerald who contributed to the screenplay without receiving credit. The Oscar-winning script was attributed solely to Sidney Howard, whose radical past included supporting Communist Party of America candidate William Foster in the 1932 Presidential election. Right from the start, as this prologue appears and before we meet Scarlett O’Hara or Rhett Butler or any of Sidney Howard’s words are spoken, you’re reminded that this film was released when segregation was mandated in the South and widely, unofficially in force in the North. This is indeed, a poem to an age that may be gone, but for a large part of its target audience in 1939 and undoubtedly today, it has not been forgotten and is remembered with misty-eyed nostalgia that is blind to how those plantations prospered and how those Southern families accumulated their wealth.
That air of “gallantry” and “knights and their ladies” is evident straight away. On the porch at Tara is the beautiful, strong-willed Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara. She’s talking to the Tarleton twins, Brent and Stuart (Stuart is played by George Reeves, of TV fame in the ‘50s as Superman). The Tarleton boys are vying for Scarlett’s affections but even more exciting than romance is the prospect of going to war with those Yankees from the North. There’s never any detailed explanation of why there’s conflict between the South and the North – like the issue of slavery for example. That would have been bad for box-office. For the Tarletons and all the other Southern men we soon see running off to enlist it’s about honour, self-determination and land. As Scarlett’s Irish American father Gerald tells her “Why, land's the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts.” But Scarlett isn’t interested in land and war “fiddle de-dee, this war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring” she says. On her mind is romance and hopefully marriage to Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), heir to nearby 12 Oaks plantation. Never mind that Ashley doesn’t love her, and he’s about to announce his engagement to his cousin – yes, cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Scarlett will just have to tell Ashley he really does love her and that’ll be that.
If there’s a white voice of reason and conscience here it belongs to Ashley Wilkes. He seems to have a genuine affection for his slaves and later says he would have freed them regardless of the war’s outcome. In the stampede to join the Confederate army it’s Ashley who steps back and tells his friends “most of the misery in the world has been caused by war.” That doesn’t stop him from joining up but his motives are much more personal and immediate – he just want s to preserve 12 Oaks, the place he loves and where he wants to be buried. When Ashley returns from the war he’s clearly suffering PTSD and is suicidal - “a world which is worse than death” is how he describes coming home to the wreckage of 12 Oaks. Ashley may have lost everything, but let’s remember that he owed his wealth and the happiness it brought to the slave labor on his property. If we can feel sympathy at all for Ashley, who’s also never owned up to his true feelings for Scarlett out of the obligation he feels for Melanie, it’s due to Leslie Howard’s sensitive and heartfelt performance. The star of INTERMEZZO and THE SCARLETT PIMPERNEL, and Oscar-nominated for PYGMALION (1938) and BERKELY SQUARE (1933), Howard co-starred with Olivia de Havilland in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER” a zingy 1937 comedy directed by Archie Roach in which engaged heiress de Havilland gets tangled up with egotistical actor Howard. It’s great fun. Leslie Howard returned to the UK after GONE WITH THE WIND to help the war effort and was killed on June the first 1943 after his commercial KLM flight from Lisbon to Bristol was shot down by German planes.
Even if he doesn’t realise the contradictions and hypocricy of his position as a moneyed Southerner whose noble notion of freeing his slaves would adversely affect his profit margins, Ashleigh is a calming and sensible presence. His earlier words of caution about war ring loudest in famous scenes of Scarlett wandering through thousands of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers on the train tracks of Atlanta. And especially when she turns away in horror when Dr Meade (Harry Davenport) is about to perform an amputation without anaesthetic. GWTW may glorify the Confederate cause but to its credit it never glorifies war itself. There are no big battle scenes and the only deaths we witness of men in uniform come during the Yankee occupation of Atlanta when the lives of Southern civilians are placed at risk.
If not the conscience of the film, the heart and soul of GWTW is undeniably Ashleigh’s wife (and cousin) Melanie, played so beautifully by Olivia de Havilland. Her career to this point included CAPTAIN BLOOD, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and DODGE CITY – all with Errol Flynn, and ANTHONY ADVERSE opposite Frederic March. Almost impossibly sweet, selfless and noble Melanie is the best friend Scarlett O’Hara could ever have, even if Melanie’s husband is the man Scarlett wants for herself. It’s hard to like Scarlett and warm to her throughout the entire story, she’s so selfish and today we’d be tempted to call her a stalker. But Melanie is the opposite and is the perfect dramatic foil for Scarlett. Melanie loves Scarlett as a sister. Melanie becomes a volunteer nurse – as Scarlett does but she’s never convincingly committed to it. Unlike everyone else in Atlanta society Melanie talks to Belle Watling (Ona Munson), madam of an upscale brothel frequented by the city’s rich and powerful men (hypocrisy again). Belle’s offer to donate part of her earnings to a hospital has been rejected by so-called respectable society as an insult to the Confederate cause. That’s until Melanie, who is educated and well-read, graciously and without judgement accepts Belle’s much-needed funds.
One of the most famous sequences in GWTW is the “burning of Atlanta.” It was filmed in December 1938, very early in the production schedule before Vivien Leigh had signed on, requiring the use of a stand-in for Scarlett in wide shots. Watch closely and you can see the stand-in’s face turned away from camera or with a raised arm hiding her identity. Mozelle Miller, who was Vivien Leigh’s double, was paid about 27 US dollars a day for her work. But it’s not Scarlett’s fate we’re most concerned with as Rhett Butler drives a horse and buggy through the flames. Melanie and her new-born baby are in the carriage. Their safety and the very real risk of their deaths give the scene an emotional impact to match the awesome visual spectacle. And what a spectacle it is: this sequence takes GWTW into Apocalyptic zombie movie or MAD MAX FURY ROAD-like territory, with Rhett fighting off desperados attempting to steal their transport while an inferno slowly engulfs the town and the lives of a mother and baby hang in the balance. It’s thrilling stuff, right up there with the chariot race in BEN-HUR as a classic action scene that still makes the grade today. Sure, computer-generated imagery can do just about anything but there’s something about REAL action that’s hard to beat.
The first half of GWTW moves at a breakneck pace, driven by the Civil War and its impact on the main characters. For Scarlett that means becoming married and widowed while still obsessing over Ashley Wilkes and falling in and out of lust – there’s no other way to put it – with Rhett Butler, the handsome, opportunistic profiteer, gambler and all-round scoundrel with no allegiance to anyone or anything other than his own financial well-being. But of course there’s a heart there when it counts. Who better to play him than the king of Hollywood, Clark Gable. A man with a chin, a chest, and hair at the height of his powers as a leading man following a string of hits opposite the tragic platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow and an Oscar to his name for the screwball comedy classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Most of us know about the “search for Scarlett O’Hara” in which just about every leading lady in Tinseltown was rumoured at one time or another to be cast in the role – Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard and even Katherine Hepburn would you believe, but much less is known about the casting of Rhett. Gable was David O. Selznick’s first choice but tricky contractual matters in the studio system of the times meant that leading men including Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn came into the frame before Gable could be secured, even though he didn’t really want the part that eventually became his most famous and earned him an Oscar nomination. Rhett Butler – talk about a man’s man, and a ladies man. Rhett is “friends” with Belle the bordello keeper and infuriatingly attractive to Scarlett, who loves and hates his brash, straight-talking ways. The chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable is terrific, hurling insults at each other one moment and declaring love the next. Even when they finally do marry – no spoiler alert there, even if you haven’t seen the film you know they will – there’s tension, tragedy and fabulous melodrama from the moment they say “I do.” As wonderful as the Scarlett-Rhett relationship is – it sustains the second half of the film which is otherwise a bit limp and repetititious at times – there’s one particularly troubling aspect involving rape inside marriage. There’s no question about what happens one night at the magnificent mansion Rhett has built for them in Atlanta. Drunk, angry about Scarlett’s ongoing love for Ashley and her refusal to have sex Rhett marches Scarlett upstairs against her will. She is furious and resisting him strongly “this is one night you’re not turning me out” he says. The next morning Scarlett is seen smiling, beaming even with happiness … but for me this can’t exonerate the previous scene as there’s not even the slightest hint that it might be a game that Scarlett secretly enjoys or wants … that would have been too much to convey to general audiences in 1939. It’s possible that Margaret Mitchell based this part of the story on her own horrific experiences while married to Red Upshaw, a violent alcoholic. It’s also been suggested that Rhett Butler was an idealized version of Upshaw. In any case it’s a nasty scene of macho dominance and really detracts from the film. A shame, because elsewhere in the Rhett-Scarlett relationship there’s so much to enjoy. I mentioned before that it’s hard to like Scarlett but she’s always compelling and that’s what drama requires with an unsympathetic central character. We always want to know what’s going to happen next in her colourful and eventful life.
The first time Scarlett and Rhett meet is at a barbecue at 12 Oaks. Scarlett is immediately intrigued when told about the terrible reputation of this dashing man dressed in a fancy black suit. After Butler has mentally undressed her and given her the first of many highly sexual stares and smiles Scarlett tells a friend “he looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy”. Some of the film’s best dialogue is exchanged when they’re in the heat of passion or at the height of hostility. “You'll never corner me Rhett Butler or frighten me. You've lived in dirt so long you can't understand anything else” says Scarlett. And as Rhett says: “I love you, because we’re alike. Bad lots both of us, selfish and shrewd. But able to look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.”
The running time of GWTW is 221 minutes, or somewhere between 234 and 238 minutes if you count the overture, intermission and exit music audiences would have experienced on original release. A quick side-note, I love overtures that accompanied so many big Hollywood films from the 20s to the 70s – THE WIZARD OF OZ, BEN-HUR, 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY and THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT come to mind. While the lights were still up and the curtains still closed the overture music brought anticipation and a marvellous sense of occasion to going to the movies. Much better than the 20 minutes of advertising we get now.
The intermission of GWTW comes after the war is over and Scarlett returns to her shattered family in the ruins of Tara, vowing to rebuild the great family home. “As God is my witness I’ll never be hungry again” she says. It’s actually not a bad idea to give yourself an intermission at that time as well, to think about this sprawling story and how it’s been told. Visually it’s superb in three-strip Technicolor – only the 30th feature film to use the process – and it’s gorgeously costumed and art directed, and set to a rousing score by the legendary Max Steiner – Oscar nominated for this and winner for NOW VOYAGER, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and THE INFORMER.
But what you can’t ignore – and indeed what we look at more closely than ever before – is the portrayal of African-American characters. In early scenes we watch contented slaves peacefully working the fields. There’s field foreman Big Sam (Everett Brown), who will remain loyal to the O’Hara’s even after the war and rescues Scarlett when her life is in danger. Pork (Oscar Polk) a house servant. Like Big Sam, he stays with the O’Hara’s after emancipation. Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), another house servant. With her high-pitched voice, exaggerated speech and dim-witted nature she’s played for comic relief. Rhett calls her “A simple-minded darkie.” None of the black characters here are treated with much dignity but Prissy comes off the worst – she’s the living embodiment of the idea that black people are intellectually inferior and stand little hope of making their way in the world on their own. They NEED white owners to provide the basic necessities and are better off in servitude. We do see some freed slaves in the course of the film, but mostly they’re portrayed as hustlers and opportunists who’ve teamed up with carpetbaggers, those despised Northerners coming to the South after the war to exert political and economic influence. One scene shows a carpetbagger offering a grant of 40 Acres and a Mule to newly freed blacks – a reference to Special Field Orders Number 15 issued by the North’s General Sherman in January 1865. In truth there was a very short window for this order and it was never properly enacted before being rescinded completely by Abraham Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson. Few freed slaves ever received 40 Acres and a Mule. Interesting to note here that African-American filmmaker Spike Lee – BLACK KLANSSMAN, MALCOLM X - named his production company 40 Acres and a Mule. 40 Acres is also the name of the RKO studios backlot David O Selznick leased in 1935 and used for filming GWTW. As you watch Atlanta burn you’re also watching sets of the original 1933 version of KING KONG go up in smoke.
I like digging into history such as this. It helps us understand the context of stories we watch and reminds us that movies should never be mistaken for accurate history lessons. Some come close to the truth, others treat it as an afterthought. But no drama – even 221 minute epics such as this – can tell the whole story.
But let’s get back to the issue at hand and look at the most important African-American character in GONE WITH THE WIND – Mammy played by Hattie MacDaniel, whom I mentioned earlier as only being allowed to sit at a side table at the Academy Awards on the night she became the first African-American to win one of those famous statuettes. The character name itself – Mammy - is the dominant caricature of African-American women in literature and cinema. Mammy’s were created to give the impression that slaves were happy and even contented to be part of the household of their owners and therefore slavery itself was acceptable. Giving them a nurturing, mothering role is an inherent part of this – they bring up white children, are part of the white family and always are large-framed, older women with no overt sexual appeal that could raise questions about “wrongdoing” with the male head of the house. We know from history that’s far from the truth but it’s very convenient in dramas such as GONE WITH THE WIND and hundreds of other films such as the 1934 and 1959 versions of IMITATION OF LIFE. And so it is here with Mammy, whom we first meet as the sassy and straight talkin’ housemaid who’s been with the O’Hara’s for generations and is the only character apart from Rhett Butler who ever tells Scarlett O’Hara the truth. As Scarlett prepares for the big 12 Oaks bbq at the beginning of the film Mammy tells her to eat something beforehand, so she won’t appear to be unladylike by eating at the gathering. That in itself tells you plenty about social norms and sexism in bygone days. “If you don't care what folks says about this family, I does” says Mammy “you can always tell a lady by the way that she eats in front of folks - like a bird” she adds. Mammy also lays it out straight to Scarlett about Ashley Wilkes. “What a gentleman says and what they thinks is two different things. And I ain't noticed Mist' Ashley askin' for to marry ya.” Mammy calls it correct and true every single time – she’s like the Greek chorus of the film. She’s powerless to do anything because she is the property of the O’Hara family but at the same time she’s privileged in this world because she can say things that would land other slaves in very hot and painful water. There’s no doubt Hattie McDaniel deserved her Oscar, it’s a fabulous, full blooded performance. But that’s just it – it’s a performance intended to make white audiences feel untroubled by the fact that Mammy and every other African-American character here has been denied basic human rights.
It’s a complex issue. When McDaniel attracted criticism for playing a role that perpetuated Mammy-ism she said “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one.” Which reminds me, if you want to see a very fine film about Black American domestic maids I highly recommend THE HELP, made in 2011 and based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel set in 1960s Mississippi.
For me the portrayal of Mammy is representative of the entire film. So much to admire and enjoy if you don’t think too deeply but once you start to look more closely it becomes troublesome. In pure filmmaking terms GONE WITH THE WIND is a majestic achievement. David O Selznick’s biographer David Thomson noted that Selznick considered the audience response to a public sneak preview on 9 September 1939 (when it ran 4 and a half hours) to be the greatest moment of his life “the greatest victory and redemption of all his failings” noted Thomson. 300,000 people turned out in Atlanta for the December premiere, which was part of a 3-day program of festivities with Confederate flags everywhere. Again, that would not and could not happen today. It’s a film that does sag a bit toward the end but is never less than dramatically compelling and visually magnificent – even the shots of real pastures and fields look fake, they’re so green and so red. A note here about the stunning production design. William Cameron Menzies received a special Oscar for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”. Menzies, who later directed films including INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) also invented the job title “Production Designer.” One thing Menzies and his staff – and the costume designers – didn’t have to recreate was anything related to the Ku Klux Klan. This element of the novel was omitted from the film – and luckily too I think. In D.W. Griffith’s landmark silent epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) we see the KKK portrayed as an heroic movement keeping tradition and white supremacy alive. It was the first film ever screened at the White House, by the way, for President Woodrow Wilson. When it went into general release cinema ushers were dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes at premiere screenings. THE BIRTH OF A NATION is an amazing feat of filmmaking but its reputation is severely and justifiably tarnished by its appalling and overt racism. In GONE WITH THE WIND we’re aware of southern men attending a “political meeting” but we don’t see this meeting nor is the group named but it is most certainly the Klan.
GONE WITH THE WIND is without doubt a racist film but it’s an audience-friendly kind of racism. The n-word is never uttered. Apart from a couple of moments like Rhett Butler’s “simple-minded darkie” comment there’s no speech-making or foot-stomping about slavery or white supremacy. It’s not acceptable now but in 1939 GWTW presented a view of the Civil War-era south that was consistent with general community attitudes at the time. It had to be. With this film costing a staggering 3.85 million to make it needed to be accepted and embraced by the widest possible audience to become profitable. Which it did. $189 million domestically and $200 million internationally on first release alone. With adjustments for inflation that’s about 1.8 billion, making it still the highest–grossing film of all time.
Watching GONE WITH THE WIND is a very mixed motion picture experience . As a spectacle and as entertainment it’s 4 and a half out of five for me. But on so many important fronts it hasn’t stood the test of time well at all. It represents and promotes views that for me are unacceptable and I simply couldn’t put these to one side and just go with the flow of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable’s dynamite central performances, and everything else the film has going for it. While I don’t regard it as a classic – a fallen classic maybe – I still recommend watching GONE WITH THE WIND because of its legendary stature and undeniable importance in the history of cinema.
I’d like to stick with the general theme of this Classic Film Club meeting by looking into Australian movie history and the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters. For me the most exciting development in Australian cinema over the past two decades has been the emergence of indigenous filmmakers telling their own stories. SAMSON AND DELILAH and SWEET COUNTRY by Warwick Thornton, RADIANCE and BRAN NUE DAY by Rachel Perkins, BENEATH CLOUDS and MYSTERY ROAD by Ivan Sen; Wayne Blair’s THE SAPPHIRES and TOP END WEDDING to name just a few, there are so many more. Before the long overdue emergence of indigenous filmmakers Australian cinema relied on Anglo filmmakers to tell stories involving indigenous characters. Often, shamefully, white actors in blackface played aboriginal characters – such as Ed Deveraux (from the famous Skippy TV series) playing black tracker Jubbal in the 1968 film JOURNEY OUT OF DARKNESS. The same film also featured Malaysian-born singer Kamahl playing an indigenous character. Let’s go back 13 years before that to 1955 and an Australian feature that’s the first of its kind on several fronts.
Made by the pioneering team of Charles and Elsa Chauvel, JEDDA was the first Australian film in color. It’s also the first Australian film selected for competition at Cannes and the first to feature indigenous actors in lead roles. The setting is Mongala, a remote cattle station in Central Australia run by Doug McCann (George Simpson-Lyttle) and wife Sarah (Betty Suttor). After losing her own child Sarah adopts Jedda, an indigenous baby whose mother died in childbirth. Reflecting a common view in 1950s Australia, Sarah decides to raise Jedda as if she were white; denying her access to her aboriginal roots in the belief she will have a better chance in life. Doug is skeptical, believing that blacks and whites are too different for this to work, and that Jedda should be allowed to go on walkabout and learn about her people. “They don’t tame” he says, to which Sarah replies “it’s my duty to try.” Narrating the story is Joe, an Afghani-Aboriginal orphan raised by the McCanns. When the story fast forwards to Jedda as a young woman Joe falls in love with her and wants to marry her. But Jedda – played by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - remains frustrated and confused about not knowing her language or culture. Although flattered by Joe’s attention and attracted to him, Jedda is drawn much more strongly toward station worker Marbuk (Robert Tudawali). This handsome, mysterious man whisks Jedda away in the hope he can marry her. She is willing at times and resists him at others. But Marbuk’s desire for Jedda has broken a tribal taboo, leaving them as outcasts while they’re being pursued by Joe and Northern Territory police officers. Like GONE WITH THW WIND, JEDDA is very much a product of its time. From 1909 to 1970 The Aboriginal Protection Act operated in Australia. This granted authorities permission to take mixed-race indigenous children from their mothers and have them raised in mostly church-run facilities where they were trained to become maids and other domestic workers. These children are known as the Stolen Generations and the national trauma resulting from this policy remains ongoing. It is one of the most shameful chapters in Australian history. As appalling as The Aboriginal Protection act was, many otherwise decent ordinary Australians sincerely believed it was for the best. We see this in Sarah as she goes about her task with genuine love and care to be sure, but with such a misguided and eventually catastrophic adherence to the belief that her race and culture are superior.
On the other side of the equation is her husband Joe, who stops short of saying anything truly enlightened but does at least recognise indigenous people and culture as being unique and valid, and he never uses any of the derogatory terms that would have been accepted by most viewers in 1955. At the heart of the film – and what makes it well worth watching today – are the central performances of 16 year-old Rosalie Kunoth Monks and 26-year-old Robert Tudawali, neither of whom had acted before. Very few words are spoken between them – most are in Marbuck’s language that Jedda does not understand and some are in English – but the danger, apprehension and passion of their relationship is powerfully conveyed. Rosalie Kunoth Monks, an Arrant – Anmathyeah woman, was born on Utopia cattle station and is billed here as Gnarla Kunoth. She later became a nun before working in politics and human rights and was named NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) person of the Year in 2015. She is an enormously respected Indigenous Australian woman.
A Tiwi man from Melville Island, Robert Tudawali appeared in a few other productions and was elected vice-president of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1966. His troubled life came to a premature end in 1967 but his remarkable performance as Marbuck is firmly etched in Australian cinema history. JEDDA was filmed on locations that had never been seen before in colour - Coolibah Cattle Station, Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge among them. They’re superbly photographed by d.o.p. Carl Keyser. As we so often say about Australian films set in the outback the landscape comes alive and seems like a living, breathing character. Interiors and a small number of exterior scenes were filmed at Avondale Studios in the Sydney suburb of Turella. Some of the matching between location and studio is noticeably sub-standard, with painted backdrops all too obvious. Additionally, JEDDA is hampered by the casting of white actor Paul Reynall with dark makeup as Joe. It’s not the really awful black-and-white minstrel type make-up, but blackface is still blackface any way you look at it.
For all its flaws, which includes some clumsy dialogue and variable supporting performances, there is something special about JEDDA because it is trying to say something and it is sympathetic to the plight of its central character. Yes, it fumbles around a bit and bends things to not confront mid-1950s audiences too much – such as never mentioning the forced removal of indigenous children from their mothers – but JEDDA does have its heart in the right place. It is sincere and for that it earns my respect and recommendation. JEDDA was Charles Chauvel’s final film. Chauvel also made 40,000 HORSEMEN and THE RATS OF TOBRUK, both starring legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty.
JEDDA was a sizeable hit in Australia when it opened in May 1955 and was released in the UK and the USA in 1956, where it was retitled JEDDA THE UNCIVILIZED. Here’s an excerpt from the review by Variety – the publication I write for, published on June 15 1956 “Australians generally have little sentiment for their native Negro people” – their words not mine! And this: “Although the Australian aborigine in general is unlovely Robert Tudawali is a dark native male of fine physique and a natural actor.” That review was written by an unnamed Variety critic in Sydney – presumably an Australian. Wow, how times have changed and I really want to know just who wrote it. JEDDA is available to buy on DVD but isn’t that easy to find on streaming services. Then best way to track it down is through the beamafilm streaming service that operates via council libraries. It’s actually a great – FREE – service and I do highly recommend you look it up on your local council websit or by googling beamafilm. This is not a cash-for-comments moment I assure you. I only just discovered this for myself when I wanted to watch JEDDA again. It’s a great way to connect with your local library, and the selection of films is excellent.
Finally, to the traditional trash-and-treasure segment of The Classic Film Club. I’m staying on-topic here with a few recommendations from the wonderful world of Blaxploitation cinema. Blaxploitation is the name given to a tidal wave of predominantly action and crime stories that sprang up in America in the early 1970s. Unlike Race Cinema movies produced exclusively for black audiences from the silent era to the early 1950s (they’re largely lost and forgotten now), Blaxploitation was made for general audiences by both indie companies and major film studios. While most were made by white directors, many were also made by African-American filmmakers such as Gordon Parks – SHAFT (1971), with its Oscar-winning theme by Isaac Hayes. Ossie Davis directed COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970). Ivan Dixon, who played Kinch in the HOGAN’S HEROES TV series, and went ton to direct TROUBLE MAN (1972) and the little-seen classic THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973). Blaxploition was just as the title suggests - exploitation films about the gritty and occasionally glamorous side of Africa-American life, with car-chases, shootouts, explosions and fisticuffs to the fore. We could talk forever about the dozens of Blaxploitation gems but right now I just want to highlight a few films starring my favourite female Blaxploitation star, Pam Grier. No less a person than Quentin Tarantino calls Grier the first female action star and I agree. Pam Grier started work in 1967 as a switchboard operator at legendary B-movie company American International Pictures. In 1971 director Jack Hill cast Grier in a support role in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, a women-in-prison picture in which Pam plays a lesbian inmate who busts out of a jungle hell-hole with fellow prisoners and takes revenge on those who done them wrong. It’s great stuff. So too is COFFY (1973), starring Pam as Flower Child Coffin, aka COFFY. She’s a nurse who’s out to settle the score with the low-life drug pushers responsible for her sister’s heroin addiction. COFFY was a huge hit and established Grier as Blaxploitation’s biggest star - male or female. If you want to know where tough, intelligent screen heroines come from COFFY is the place to start. Every Pam Grier film is worth watching. The other one I’d like to highly recommend is FRIDAY FOSTER (1975), with Pam playing a photographer for a high-end fashion magazine who gets drawn into a plot to assassinate black political and cultural leaders. It was based on a comic strip in the Chicago Tribune – the first –ever comic with a black female protagonist – and it has a great cast including Yaphet Kotto of ALIEN fame, Carl Weathers, who played Apollo Creed in four ROCKY movies, and the great singer, activist and author EARTHA KITT.
FRIDAY FOSTER was Pam’s final Blaxploitation film and was released toward the end of the first wave of Blaxploitation – it’s never actually gone away, just changed and evolved over the years in films such as Mario Van Pebbles’ NEW JACK CITY (1991) and Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), starring - of course – Golden Globe nominee Pam Grier. Though heavily criticized by some observers, including Black rights organizations, for promoting stereotypes and emphasizing sex, violence and crime, Blaxploitation films at their best feature strong, determined African-American characters who stand up for themselves and apologise to no-one. I highly recommend starting with Pam Grier and seeing where the road takes you from there. And I look forward to the road taking us to more fascinating and stimulating destinations on the next meeting of The Classic Film Club. I’m Richard Kuipers, thank you very much for listening.