Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 25, 2013
It’s almost 2014 and you know what that means, don’t you? That’s right, it means we are all going to be hearing about 1939, non-stop. Historically, it will be huge. It was in September of 1939 that the invasion of Poland sparked the costliest and deadliest war in human history, of course, and the memorials and commemorations that will take place centered around World War II will be the most prominent and consistent, for the next six years. But in the world of cinema, 1939 has long been revered for the quality of its productions or, at least, their popularity. Movies like The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and, the big one, Gone with the Wind, will be celebrating 75 glorious years of release but there will be other 75 and older anniversaries soon that will be even more important.
First, the big ones. The Wizard of Oz, according to most estimates seen by over a billion people (not a billion times – seen by over a billion people, multiple times!), sees its 75th anniversary with the release of the book, The Wizard of Oz: The Official Companion, by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman (click here to go to TCM’s book page). I can tell you, it’s a book I’ll be getting because of all the movies celebrated from 1939, this one is now and always will be my favorite, even up against The Rules of the Game and Stagecoach, numbers two and three for me. I have the Collector’s Edition DVD that contains the documentary from the 1989 50th anniversary (which seems like yesterday to me) as well as hours of behind the scenes footage, special effects documentaries (the footage of putting the big cloth cyclone together is worth the whole damn thing) and interviews and I’ve got to say, I never tire of it. It’s a movie I’ve watched a hundred times and will probably watch a hundred more. I think every single person in the cast, right down to the actors in the monkey costumes, are just perfect and Bert Lahr’s performance still strikes me as one of the best and hammiest comedic performances I’ve ever seen. I mean, that performance is honey-glazed with a pineapple slice and cherry on top! And I love it!
It goes without saying that Gone with the Wind will be celebrated but I wonder if the celebrations won’t be tinged with a bit of controversy. Once upon a time, Gone with the Wind attracted little to no attention for its racial attitudes but as the years advance and more dramatic portrayals of slavery hit the screen, like this year’s 12 Years a Slave, the portrayals of loyal, happy slaves, like Mammy, call into question the story decisions of the movie. No, it’s not a movie about slavery but its portrayal of slavery is substantially less than enlightened. Of all the classic films in Hollywood’s canon, this may be the biggest one that will one day fall completely out of favor with modern audiences. For now, I don’t see a big backlash building against it but, and it’s just a hunch, I think it will soon enough.
This would be a good time to talk about another one of those anniversaries I was referring to when I wrote up top, “there will be other anniversaries soon that will be even more important.” One of those, perhaps the biggest, coming not in 2014 but 2015, will be the 100th anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. They don’t get more controversial than this one. In fact, only a blind man could sit through The Birth of a Nation and not notice how horribly, hideously racist it is. I mean, it’s bad. I remember reading about the movie for years before I saw it and thought that I would be prepared but, honestly, I wasn’t even close. Watching it decades and decades after its release, I was still shocked by what i saw on the screen. The final moments even play off as a joke the KKK pointing guns at black men to prevent them from voting. It’s pretty disgusting.
But, and it’s one of the biggest buts (make your jokes now) in all of movie history, it came out at a time when much of what was in it was considered instrumental in honing the language of film through incredible editing and camera techniques. So, it goes without saying, its anniversary will be one big social media yelling match. You’ll have people defending its techniques while others decry that every ounce of the movie is racist and undeserving of praise. I don’t think any other movie anniversary will spark as much heated debate as this one and it should start soon, in 2014.
The fact that The Birth of a Nation is so rife with racism and the fact that it signals a turning point in the success and artistry of American film means that most critics and historians will want to get in on the conversation early. I’d look for talk of the 100th anniversary to start very soon and build towards a cacophonous climax, much like the movie itself.
Beyond that, think of the other big anniversaries coming up: Intolerance (Griffith’s answer, so to speak, to the controversy of Birth of a Nation) sees its 100th anniversary in just two years. Also in two years, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon each celebrate their 75th anniversary too. Kane is another one where I bought all the collector’s material in 1989 for the 50th anniversary and that seems like I just did that. At that time, it was a VHS tape but I guarantee you, even though I own a seemingly limitless supply of material on Citizen Kane, as well as copies of the movie on VHS, DVD and streaming, I will still buy all the 75th anniversary materials as well because, come on, it’s movie collector stuff!
In 2017, just three years from now, we’ll see the 75th anniversary of Casablanca (yes, I’ll buy all of that stuff, too) and in 2018, we’ll see the 85th anniversary of King Kong (it’s 80th, this year, brought some new stuff but not enough for my taste; perhaps 85 will be better). Of course, King Kong has its own set of modern day problems. For starters, its portrayal of the Chinese cook on board the expedition’s ship is embarrassingly caricatured, the islanders are pretty bad off too, and the entire idea of taking an animal away from its natural habitat to be displayed in a pageant isn’t exactly smiled upon these days. Back then, though, trapping exotic animals and bringing them to civilization was all the rage and makes King Kong a time-capsule piece as well.
But let’s end this on a lighter note because, to be honest, there are two anniversaries next year that trump all the rest of these. In 2014, It Happened One Night and The Thin Man will each be 80 years old. These two movies were, for me, the first two movies from the early sound era that felt like they had a modern day sense of sophisticated comedy to them, especially The Thin Man. The Marx Brothers proved the early sound era could produce wildly funny comedy that was unhinged and manic but these two movies proved comedy could have a sly sophistication to it that continues to this day (in the best examples, obviously). Neither of these movies feels old when I watch them and I’m sure a little of that has to do with how much I love older movies in the first place. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone weened on only modern cinema would find them alien but I find them refreshing and wonderful. Here’s to their 80th, coming soon, and to all the anniversaries of all the great movies, controversial or not, coming down the pike. Anything that sparks discussion of the cinema is worthy of celebration.
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