#29) Gone with the Wind (1939) – Part 1

#29) Gone with the Wind (1939)

OR “A Movie Divided”

Directed by Victor Fleming

Written by Sidney Howard. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell.

Class of 1989

In the three years since I wrote my original “Gone with the Wind” post, the tone of this blog has evolved, and I’ve wanted to revise and expand this post to reflect that change. Also, in light of recent national events (as well as this film making headlines again), I felt that now was the best time to rewatch “Gone with the Wind” through the lens of our national dialogue about systemic racism. As always, this is a reminder that no single write-up can answer every question that this movie raises. Consider this post the beginning of a longer conversation we as a nation need to have about race relations and the continued impact of the Confederacy.

Also, brace yourselves: This is the Horse’s Head’s very first three-parter!

The Plot: In 1861 Georgia, spoiled plantation daughter Scarlett O’Hara pines over her neighbor Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Upon learning that Ashley is to be engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), Scarlett throws a passive aggressive tantrum at their announcement party, much to the amusement of fellow guest Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). When the Civil War breaks out, Scarlett’s world is turned upside down, and through her hardship is forced to mature into an independent, shrewd business woman. This growth occurs simultaneously with her on-again, off-again attractions to Rhett Butler, which complicates her feelings for Ashley. There’s plenty of drama in this iconic, masterful…love letter to the Confederate South!? To quote another movie, fasten your seat belts.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the most popular and influential American films produced” and “possibly the definitive example of filmmaking in the Hollywood studio era.” The work of composer Max Steiner, as well as the main cast, are highlighted. An essay by author Molly Haskell briefly touches upon the film’s problems, but is mostly of celebration of Scarlett O’Hara’s subversion of the female movie character tropes of the day.

But Does It Really?: It seems that in recent years “Gone with the Wind” has finally been removed from the “Casablanca“/”Citizen Kane” list of quintessential classic films and added to the “Birth of a Nation” list of important yet increasingly problematic American movies. “Gone with the Wind” is still the pinnacle of studio system filmmaking (ironic since it was a co-production with independent producer David O. Selznick), with an epic scope that no other movie from the era can match, and it spent the majority of the 20th century as an oft-referenced, oft-parodied cultural icon. This all being said, “Gone with the Wind” is a romanticized take on the Confederacy that due to its phenomenal success continues to create issues in our culture today, and its racist overtones permeate the entire film, even in scenes that don’t explicitly involve the slave characters. While the film’s entertainment value has plummeted in recent years, its historical and cultural significance is still being felt with a strength that very few movies of the era still possess. No argument for NFR inclusion, but the days of “Gone with the Wind” as one of the greatest movies of all time are, well….gone with the wind.

Everybody Gets One: Like many British movie stars of the era, Leslie Howard first found success on the London stage, followed by a transition to Broadway, and eventually Hollywood. When approached for “Gone with the Wind”, Howard felt he was all wrong for Ashley Wilkes, but David Selznick enticed him with an additional offer to produce and star in another movie (1939’s “Intermezzo”). Howard was devoted to the Allied cause during WWII, and was tragically killed in action when the aircraft carrying him was shot down over the coast of Spain.

Wow, That’s Dated: Oh, we will talk about what’s dated in this movie; you just keep reading.

Title Track: Margaret Mitchell chose the title “Gone with the Wind” from a line in a poem by Ernest Dowson: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind”. Mitchell used the line as a reference to the loss of the Southern way of life (and/or lost love). Side note: the more flowery explanation of the title in the film’s opening segment was written for the movie, and was not featured in the original novel. Allegedly, Margaret Mitchell did not appreciate this addition.

Seriously, Oscars?: The last major release of the Greatest Year in Movies, “Gone with the Wind” opened to blockbuster business, becoming the most successful film of all time (and adjusted for inflation, still is). Two months later “Wind” entered the Oscar race with a record-breaking 13 nominations. The film won eight Oscars (also a record), plus an additional two tech awards. Among its wins: Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win or even be nominated for an Oscar). The “Gone with the Wind” sweep was such a foregone conclusion that first-time emcee Bob Hope jokingly dubbed the ceremony “a benefit for David Selznick”.

Before we get to “Other notes”, I felt that a few of the film’s production notes deserved their own section called…Production Notes.

  • Margaret Mitchell based “Gone with the Wind” on her family’s recollections of growing up in the Civil War/Reconstruction Era. The novel caught the eye of several studios before it was published. David Selznick was initially skeptical about the novel’s film possibilities, but his story editor Kay Brown convinced him of the potential.
  • Pre-production lasted 2 1/2 years! Playwright Sidney Howard was hired to write the screenplay, and George Cukor signed on to direct. When Howard refused to fly out to Hollywood for rewrites, subsequent drafts were penned by playwrights Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten, among others.
  • The film’s other delay came from waiting for popular choice Clark Gable to become available. Gable initially had no interest in playing Rhett Butler, but finally agreed when Selznick offered him enough money that he could divorce his wife and marry Carole Lombard.
  • The search for Scarlett O’Hara is still the biggest casting call in movie history (though most of it was exaggerated for publicity). Mitchell wanted Miriam Hopkins, Cukor lobbied for Katharine Hepburn, and popular opinion sided with Tallulah Bankhead. Practically every actress in Hollywood auditioned for the part, but only the two finalists auditioned in Technicolor: Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh. Goddard was very close to winning the role, but her then-unconventional common law marriage to Charlie Chaplin proved too controversial. 25 year old unknown British actor Vivien Leigh was in Hollywood while her partner Laurence Olivier was filming “Wuthering Heights“, and was introduced to David Selznick by his brother Myron (Leigh’s theatrical agent at the time). Leigh won over David on the strength of her performance in “Fire Over England“, as well as a reading and screen test with Gable. Leigh joined the cast in January 1939, a month after the film started production!
  • The film’s biggest setback occurred three weeks into filming when Selznick fired director George Cukor. Selznick felt that Cukor’s work wasn’t dynamic enough (and there is speculation that Gable didn’t like working with an openly gay director). MGM’s Victor Fleming was hired to replace Cukor, leaving “The Wizard of Oz” midway through its production (but that’s another story). Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were both devastated by the replacement, and secretly continued to meet with Cukor on weekends to develop their characters. Fleming filmed the bulk of the movie (and reshot most of Cukor’s work), but was temporarily replaced by Sam Wood when he took a hiatus due to exhaustion.

Okay, now we can get to the film proper….in Part Two!

#468) Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

#468) Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

OR “They’re Coming to America (Today!)”

Directed by Alfred C. Abadie

Class of 2019 

Ellis Island has a long history that a blog post like mine can only oversimplify. To learn more about Ellis Island, check out their official website!

The Plot: From the Edison film catalog:

“Shows a large open barge loaded with people of every nationality, who have just arrived from Europe, disembarking at Ellis Island, N.Y. A most interesting and typical scene.”

Why It Matters: The NFR gives an historical rundown of the film and Ellis Island, calling the film the first “to record the now-mythologized moment” of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

But Does It Really?: It’s always tough to justify the inclusion of yet another Edison actuality film on the NFR, but while other Edison films capture mundane moments like a sneeze, “Emigrants” is a rare glimpse at the Immigrant Boom of the early 1900s. In just two minutes of film we can witness more insight into an immigrants long struggle to get to America than we could by any other form of communication. A pass for “Ellis Island”, but mainly for what it represents rather than the film itself.

Everybody Gets One: Alfred C. Abadie was a cameraman for Thomas Edison c. 1898-1904. Although “Emigrants” was filmed stateside, the bulk of Abadie’s 1903 work for Edison was filmed abroad (allegedly because Edison wanted to beat the Lumière Brothers at their own game). Abadie appears on-camera as a sheriff in “The Great Train Robbery“, filmed in part at the Edison Studio in New York, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who also got his start as one of Edison’s cameramen.

Wow, That’s Dated: Like many films of the early 1900s, “Ellis Island” documents that hats were seemingly required for all public appearances: men with their bowlers, women with their Edwardian garden hats.

Other notes 

  • First off, shout out to the indigenous Lenape people, whose land Ellis Island currently sits on.
  • Ellis Island changed hands a few times before becoming an immigration station. After being run by the Dutch during the 1600s, Little Oyster Island (as it was then known) was purchased by local merchant Samuel Ellis in 1774. After his passing, the island became a military base, being used by the US Army and Navy in the War of 1812 and the Civil War (among others). After the Civil War the magazines and other firearms were slowly dismantled, and the island was eventually controlled by the US Department of Treasury. In response to a call for a national immigration policy, Ellis Island was chosen to host a central immigration station (something that had been previously attempted in 1847). Ellis Island opened to immigrants in 1892 and in its prime took in as many as 4000 immigrants a day.
  • According to the Library of Congress and Edison’s records, “Ellis Island” was filmed on July 9th, 1903, and copyrighted two weeks later on July 24th. Most historians place the first public screening sometime that August.
  • Immediately following what you see in this film, the immigrants would then line up in the main building for further inspection. Each person would be inspected by multiple officials for any obvious physical impairment (At this point they would have already gone through two medical inspections: One in their home country before departure, and another on the boat immediately after docking.) After that, each person would be subjected to hours of basic questioning. If they passed the questioning, they were given a signed affidavit and free to enter America.
  • Anyone who did not pass the physical or medical examinations would be quarantined in the island’s hospital, detained, or even deported. Roughly 1% of all immigrants at Ellis Island were deported.
  • It should also be pointed out that Ellis Island officials considered such characteristics as homosexuality to be “moral defects” that qualified for automatic deportation. This common occurrence makes America guilty of the same eugenic practices we would one day condemn the Nazis for.
  • Sometimes while researching these films I stumble upon information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew about a subject. In this case: the myth that officials at Ellis Island would Americanize the last name of immigrants as they arrived. Turns out no officials did that; they were fluent in a multitude of languages and documented their names accurately, even correcting any spelling errors that had fallen through the cracks. Most immigrants Americanized their own names after the fact to help assimilate.

Legacy 

  • Ellis Island continued to be the epicenter for immigrant activity in the United States for the next 20 years, until the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 sharply decreased the number of immigrants allowed in the country (turns out we’ve always had a problem with that). After that, Ellis Island became more of a detention center before finally closing in 1954. In 1965 the island was declared a national monument and reopened in 1976 as a museum dedicated to its former life.
  • After working for Edison, Alfred Abadie became a freelance filmmaker. His most notable post-Edison film is the 1917 educational short “Birth”, allegedly the first film to document an actual birth. God help me if that ever makes the NFR.
  • I actually visited Ellis Island in 2011 on my first trip to New York. Ironically, Ellis Island had an exhibit on Alcatraz at the time, so I flew across the country to learn about an island six miles from my house. Here I am in my younger, skinnier, tanner days using a jail cell as a fun photo op.
I used to look like this every day. Photo credit: Dylan West.

#467) Eve’s Bayou (1997)

#467) Eve’s Bayou (1997)

OR “Second Sight Unseen”

Directed & Written by Kasi Lemmons

Class of 2018

The Plot: In a Creole neighborhood in 1960s Louisiana, the seemingly perfect Batiste family falls apart through the eyes of middle child Eve (Jurnee Smollett). One night at a party, Eve witnesses her father, respected doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), having an affair. Older daughter Cisely (Meagan Good) convinces her she didn’t see it, but Eve continues to pick up on her father’s extra-marital affairs throughout the summer. As this revelation becomes more apparent, Eve’s steadfast mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) takes solace in the psychic counseling of Louis’ sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). When Eve learns of a tense interaction between Louis and Cisely, she consults with town fortune teller Elzora (Diahann Carroll) about using voodoo to kill her father. Director Kasi Lemmons highlights the frailty of memory and perception in her feature film debut.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the indie surprises of the 1990s”, and singles out the “standout cast” – especially the “remarkable” Jurnee Smollett.

But Does It Really?: As the rest of this post will reiterate, I was blown away by “Eve’s Bayou”. The film infuses the standard “coming-of-age” drama with a memory play that helps it stand out amongst other indie films of the era. Kasi Lemmons confidently tells her story with a top-notch ensemble led by Jurnee Smollett. In a time when we as a nation are making a conscious effort to make more black voices heard, I cannot recommend “Eve’s Bayou” enough, not just as a great movie by an African-American woman, but a great movie, period.

Everybody Gets One: Kasi Lemmons started acting at a young age, but always knew that she wanted to direct. Her acting career is highlighted by her work as Clarice’s roommate/fellow FBI trainee Ardelia Mapp in “The Silence of the Lambs“. “Eve’s Bayou” was Lemmons’ first screenplay, and her first feature-length film as a director. To prove to skeptic studios that she could direct a movie, Lemmons took a section of the screenplay, and filmed it as the short “Dr. Hugo”.

Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s only real giveaway is the opening logo for long-gone distribution company Trimark Pictures.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Eve’s Bayou” was a critical darling, and went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of 1997. Despite being nominated for (and winning) several key precursor awards,”Eve’s Bayou” received zero Oscar nominations. The film’s biggest wins were at the Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature and Best Supporting Female for Debbi Morgan.

Other notes 

  • According to Kasi Lemmons it took “two years and…about a hundred meetings” to get any studio to fund “Eve’s Bayou”. The film finally got a break at Trimark Pictures, then known for such direct-to-video horror films as “Leprechaun”, looking to branch out into art films. Production took so long to commence that Lemmons’ first choice for Eve, Meagan Good, aged out of the role. Good was given the part of older sister Cisely, and Jurnee Smollett was a last minute replacement.
  • There truly isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble. Rare is the 10-year-old that can hold a movie, but Jurnee Smollett is simply perfect. She successfully balances the innocence and naïveté of being ten with the dramatic weight the part calls for. I also enjoyed the work of Samuel L. Jackson, still riding high off his post-“Pulp Fiction” success, just before he became a blockbuster action star. His Louis is a man who has relied on his charm to overcompensate for his flaws, and that charm is starting to run out for him.
  • But perhaps most perfectly cast is Lynn Whitfield, who is of Creole descent and was raised in Louisiana during this film’s time period: she has known this character literally her entire life. Side note: Is there any woman – then and now – as stunningly beautiful as Lynn Whitfield? No, there is not.
  • Jurnee Smollett’s real-life brother Jake plays Eve’s younger brother Poe. If the Smollett name sounds familiar, you’re thinking of their older brother Jussie, “Empire” actor and recent newsmaker.
  • I feel it’s important to point out the film’s depiction of race. While the entire cast (including extras) were black or African-American, the race of these characters is only mentioned once in passing. If a white director was making this, the racial aspects/racism of the era would pervade the entire film. Kasi Lemmons wisely showcases a diverse black community, while simultaneously focusing on the family and these characters over their race or ethnicity.
  • Once we get to some of the more psychic/supernatural aspects of the movie, this whole plot could have gone off the rails, but everyone downplays it so naturally, it works. Lemmons et al achieve a very difficult balancing act.
  • At one point the kids are stuck in the house for weeks at a time, forbidden to go outside. I’m in Month Three of quarantine right now; this may be the most relatable part of the movie.
  • When Mozelle recalls how her last husband was killed, the film leans more into Tennessee Williams territory, shrewdly staging the events through a mirror without resorting to flashbacks or special effects.
  • It should be no surprise that Vondie Curtis-Hall is cast as the handsome, charming, all-too perfect man who sweeps Mozelle off her feet: he’s Kasi Lemmons’ real-life husband.
  • Speaking of Mozelle, Debbi Morgan is your MVP, and her monologue about whether or not life has a point is a standout.
  • Rounding out this fine ensemble is the late great Diahann Carroll. Probably best remembered now for her early musical career and her later work on the soap opera “Dynasty”, Carroll is wonderfully low-key in a role that could easily become campy. She’s so good in this I won’t even mention her work in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”. …wait.
  • Surprisingly, there’s a section of the end credits devoted to a special effects team and computer animators. Turns out there was an entire character cut from the movie: Uncle Tommy, a deaf-mute family member who lives in the Batiste household, and apparently witnessed one of the film’s key events. The studio investors requested his subplot be removed, and Uncle Tommy was digitally erased from the remaining background shots. While Lemmons was satisfied with the final cut, she did restore Uncle Tommy for her director’s cut in 2016.

Legacy 

  • Critics loved “Eve’s Bayou”, but it was Roger Ebert who put this film on the map by writing a four-star review, and naming it the #1 movie of 1997 on his TV show. As Kasi Lemmons stated years later, “Roger made my career”. She even has the original review framed in her home.
  • Kasi Lemmons only has a few directing/screenwriting credits to her name, the most recent being “Harriet”, the long-gestating Harriet Tubman biopic starring Cynthia Erivo, and the first of Lemmons’ movies to earn an Oscar nomination. When not making films, Lemmons teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

#466) Spartacus (1960)

#466) Spartacus (1960)

OR “Gladiator Salvation”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Dalton Trumbo…wait he’s actually credited? Oh, well then…

Written by Dalton Trumbo. Based on the novel by Howard Fast.

Class of 2017

NOTE: The only widely available version of “Spartacus” is the 1991 restoration by Robert Harris, which reinstates sequences cut after the film’s premiere, as well as some of Kubrick’s more epic battles scenes cut after previews.

The Plot: It’s the 1st Century BC, and Rome has become a collapsing empire in danger of becoming a dictatorship (sound familiar?). A slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to train as a gladiator and eventually be sold to the Roman elite. After a fight staged for visiting Roman Senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier), Spartacus incites a riot and helps his fellow gladiators escape. With a growing army of former slaves, including servant girl Varinia (Jean Simmons) and Crassus’ slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis), Spartacus vows to end slavery and restore glory to the Roman Empire. Good luck with that.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Kubrick’s “masterful direction”, as well as the film’s “sheer grandeur and remarkable cast”. The writeup also singles out the film’s efforts to end the Hollywood Blacklist of the ’50s by crediting blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

But Does It Really?: “Spartacus” is definitely a classic, but not quite one of the untouchables of American films. “Spartacus” differentiates itself from the era’s religious epics (“Ben-Hur“, “The Ten Commandments“, etc.) by being more political and emphasizing character over spectacle. In addition to its talented cast, the storytelling skills of Stanley Kubrick and Dalton Trumbo help this film’s 200 minutes clip along better than most shorter films. Despite its current status as Kubrick’s outlier film, “Spartacus” is still worth a view, and deserves a spot on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Producer Edward Lewis spent most of the ’60s backing movies for Kirk Douglas and John Frankenheimer (and both for “Seven Days in May”). Lewis’ career continued into the ’80s, with Best Picture Oscar nominee “Missing” and Emmy winning miniseries “The Thorn Birds”. Also making their sole NFR appearance is prolific actor Jean Simmons, appearing in “Spartacus” the same year she starred in “Elmer Gantry” with Burt Lancaster.

Wow, That’s Dated: HD transfers of old movies are great, but they definitely let you know where the real location ends and the matte painting begins.

Seriously, Oscars?:  The biggest hit of 1960 (and Universal Pictures’ biggest hit to date), “Spartacus” received six Oscar nominations, and won four: Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov. Despite winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, “Spartacus” failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, one of the rare Globe winners to do so.

Other notes 

  • Kirk Douglas is the first to admit that he optioned “Spartacus” out of spite for not getting the lead role in “Ben-Hur”. He bought the rights to the Fast novel, producing the film under his company Bryna Productions (named after his mother), and convinced Universal to back the film after signing on Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov.
  • Douglas essentially tricked Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov to join the film by showing each of them a different version of the script that emphasized their respective characters. The final script favored Olivier’s Crassus, which upset Laughton, who remained prickly and difficult throughout the shoot. Ustinov, an acclaimed playwright himself, volunteered to rewrite Laughton’s dialogue to his satisfaction.
  • Anthony Mann was originally announced to direct, and filmed the opening sequences seen in the final film. Douglas, however, felt that Mann was intimidated by the scope of the film, and replaced him after two weeks of shooting with Stanley Kubrick, whom Douglas had worked with on “Paths of Glory“. “Spartacus” is notable for being the only film Kubrick ever made without complete creative control, which he vowed never to do again after his tense working relationship with Kirk Douglas on this film.
  • Although Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted since 1947, he continued penning screenplays under various pseudonyms and fronts (most notably “Roman Holiday“). Trumbo was brought in to replace author Howard Fast, and planned on using the alias “Sam Jackson”, but Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo receive the credit himself. This occurred the same year that Trumbo received on-screen credit for Otto Preminger’s “Exodus”, although it’s unclear which film made this groundbreaking decision first.
  • Peter Ustinov is definitely this movie’s MVP. Sure, he’s the comic relief, but Batiatus gets the most complex characterization: he’s essentially middle management; authoritarian to his gladiators, cowardly towards his superiors.
  • The first fight sequence between Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode is very impressive. The fight choreography brings out the characters, and it has a wonderful tension throughout, plus a surprise ending.
  • Despite the backstage drama, Charles Laughton is a delight as Senator Gracchus. It’s nice to see that Laughton wasn’t completely disillusioned by his “Night of the Hunter” experience.
  • No offense to John Gavin, but this is now the third NFR film that I’ve forgotten he’s in. And he’s playing Julius Caesar for god sakes! Et tu, “Spartacus”?
  • The most infamous of the restored footage is a scene in which Crassus subtly seduces Antoninus while being given a bath. I could see how The Code wouldn’t be open to a discussion of “eating oysters” vs. “eating snails”. The scene’s original audio went missing, so Tony Curtis redubbed his own dialogue, while Anthony Hopkins filled in for the late Laurence Olivier. Hopkins’ spot-on impression of Larry bumps his NFR standing to .
  • The battle sequences were filmed in Spain, Kubrick’s only win in his desire to shoot overseas (Universal wanted to prove they could make an epic without leaving Hollywood). The battle itself is an impressive undertaking, though the restored footage makes it all a bit more gruesome (Spartacus cuts a guy’s arm off! Is this where “Anchorman” got that from?).
  • “Spartacus” is filled with allusions to the blacklist, the “I’m Spartacus” scene being a prime example. Watching a ragtag group of former slaves refuse to “name names” adds to the power of this iconic sequence. Side Note: I’m pretty sure that’s Paul Frees dubbing the soldier who announces Crassus’ offer.
  • This is the second movie where Laurence Olivier chastises Jean Simmons for not loving him. The first was when Olivier played Hamlet to Simmons’ Ophelia. What a fun reunion this must have been.
  • We have to wait until the end, but Kirk Douglas finally gets one of his famous clenched-teeth outbursts. This is preceded by a similar outburst from Olivier, apparently channeling Al Pacino.
  • Fact: My Tony Curtis impression stems from his line “I love you, Spartacus”.
  • Ultimately, Spartacus has the same message as “Hamilton”: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
  • I’m confused: I thought this movie was about Agador Spartacus.

Legacy 

  • As previously stated, Stanley Kubrick went on to only direct films in which he had total control over the production. His follow-up to “Spartacus” is the significantly less epic, but significantly more Kubrick “Lolita”. Although Kubrick distanced himself from “Spartacus” for the rest of his life, he did give the 1991 restoration his blessing and even gave a few directorial notes.
  • “Spartacus” doesn’t get the parody treatment too often, but when it does, it always involves someone shouting “I’m Spartacus!”
  • This film (along with “Exodus”) helped end the Hollywood Blacklist, and restored Dalton Trumbo’s career. And Hollywood never ostracized a creative type due to their political beliefs ever again…
  • Shortly after my last post about a Kirk Douglas film, Douglas passed away at the age of 103. Looking back on his career in 2014, he considered “Spartacus” one of his best films.

#465) Suzanne Suzanne (1982)

#465) Suzanne Suzanne (1982)

Directed by Camille Billops & James V. Hatch

Class of 2016

Another rare NFR entry with no clips I can readily embed. Here’s an interview with Camille Billops & James V. Hatch.

The Plot: Artist Camille Billops turns the camera on her own family in her filmmaking debut “Suzanne Suzanne”. The Suzanne of the title is Billops’ niece Suzanne Browning, battling a heroin addiction following the death of her father, Brownie. Also interviewed are Suzanne’s mother Billie (Camille’s sister), and grandmother Alma (Camille and Billie’s mother). It is soon revealed that both Suzanne and Billie were victims of Brownie’s alcoholism and physical abuse. Billops and her husband James Hatch chronicle their family as they grapple with their problems head-on for the first time.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “cinematic drug intervention” that “captures the essence of a black middle-class family in crisis”. The film’s climactic moment is called “an intensely moving moment of truth”.

But Does It Really?: This one is definitely on the “culturally significant” side of the list. “Suzanne Suzanne” represents Camille Billops and James V. Hatch, two people who devoted their lives to preserving African-American culture and art. While their scholarly efforts were about preserving the past, their films were about preserving the present, showing Camille and her family confronting some very personal issues. Having now done my homework, I’m curious as to why “Suzanne Suzanne” made the cut over the team’s later, even more personal film “Finding Crista”. Regardless, “Suzanne Suzanne” perfectly encapsulates Billops and Hatch’s filmography, as well as their achievements in capturing the nuance of African-American life.

Everybody Gets One: By the late ’60s, Camille Billops was primarily known as a sculptor, with exhibitions of her ceramics in both New York and Germany.  In 1968, Billops met her future husband, UCLA theater Professor James Hatch, and the two started collaborating on collecting thousands of interviews and other documentation about African-American art and culture. Through encouragement from Hatch, Billops’ art pivoted from ceramics to plays, and eventually filmmaking. “Suzanne Suzanne” was their first film together.

Title Track: We have a title song! “Suzanne Suzanne” the song was composed by Billops’ daughter Christa Victoria (see “Legacy”), and sung by Victoria and Billops. Once again, I am surprised when a serious documentary or short has its own title song.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Suzanne Suzanne”, or Billops & Hatch. 1982’s Documentary Short Subject Oscar winner was “If You Love This Planet“, a controversial anti-nuclear weapons film.

Other notes 

  • The film’s cinematographer is Dion Hatch, James’ son from a previous marriage.
  • Right out the gate, this film grapples with its complex subject matter. Both Suzanne and Billie are relieved that Brownie is no longer controlling their lives, but at the same time Suzanne admits that he was a role model for her, highlighting the complex relationship that some people have with their parents.
  • I cannot imagine how tough it must have been for this family to open up about any of these topics. Then again, I doubt any of them considered the possibility that this documentation would become part of a national film archive.
  • We get a brief glimpse at Camille’s reflection in the bathroom mirror while she is interviewing her nephew Michael (Suzanne’s brother). She is sporting her trademark braids and necklaces. And while we’re on the subject, that is one hell of a mustache Michael is sprouting. It’s a cross between a handlebar and extended muttonchops.
  • The rehab center Suzanne goes to (Tuum Est, Inc.) is in Venice Beach, CA. The building is still a rehab center, but is now called Phoenix House.
  • The film’s highlight is Suzanne and Billie working out their respective trauma one-on-one during Suzanne’s rehabilitation. They ask each other questions while looking away from each other, and seeing both of their faces as each one of them has a breakthrough is a compelling viewing experience.

Legacy 

  • Camille Billops and James Hatch made five more short films over the next 20 years, many of them centering around Billops and her family. Most notable of these is 1991’s “Finding Christa”, documenting Billops’ reunion with her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption in the early ’60s.
  • I had difficulty tracking down any present day information about Suzanne Browning. Anyone know what happened to her?
  • Billops died in June 2019 at the age of 85, with Hatch following in March 2020 at age 91. Their extensive collection of African-American interviews, plays, and manuscripts are available in the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University.