Tag Archives: WW1

The Basil Rathbone Blogathon: A Tribute To Basil

Gabriela at Pale Writer is hosting this blogathon dedicated to the actor Basil Rathbone. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. 

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Basil Rathbone was one of the greatest character actors of the classic film era. During the 1930’s and 40’s he gained worldwide fame and appreciation, not only for his superb portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but also for all of those memorable screen villains that he played. 

There are not enough words for me to be able to use to tell you how much I love Basil Rathbone. He was such a brilliant actor. I’ve always admired how he made everything he did on screen appear completely effortless.

I will never understand how Basil didn’t end up as a romantic leading man and star in the vein of actors such as John Barrymore or Fredric March. He more than had the acting talent and the sex appeal to have been star material as far as I’m concerned. Not only do I love him as an actor, but I also admire him so much for what he went through in WW1, and how he somehow managed to continue on in life after suffering great personal loss and tragedy. I also like that he appeared to be a humble and sensitive man in real life. 

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Basil as that most dashing of villains, Sir Guy Of Gisbourne. Screenshot by me.

My introduction to Basil came about in the early 2000’s, when I first watched The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), in which Basil plays the dastardly and extremely dashing, Sir Guy Of Gisbourne. What presence he has in that film!

I was left both impressed and intrigued by Basil after seeing this film, and I set about checking out as many of his other films as I could find from then on. I’ve been a fan of his ever since. 

As much as I love The Adventures Of Robin Hood for the exciting story and Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland as Robin and Marion, what I love most about it is how Basil, along with co-star Claude Rains, effortlessly steals the film from everyone else in the cast. Whether he’s duelling with Errol Fynn’s heroic Robin, or shooting a withering glance at someone, Basil has your attention throughout that film and commands your attention even when he’s actually doing very little.

The nail-biting and thrilling duel at the end between Robin and Sir Guy, is a moment that you don’t forget in a hurry. If, after watching that suspenseful duelling sequence, you are left with the impression that Basil handles a sword pretty well, then you’d be right. Our boy Basil was twice the British Army fencing champion and was a natural at swordfighting. While Sir Guy loses his duel with Robin, I would put good money on Basil having been the winner if that had been an off-screen duel being fought for real. 

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Basil and Errol prepare to duel. Image source IMDb.

Ironically given his skill as a swordsman he only ever got to win 2 onscreen duels, the first against John Barrymore in Romeo And Juliet(1936), and the second against Eugene Pallette in The Mark Of Zorro(1940). 

Basil Rathbone was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 13th of June, 1892. His parents, Edgar and Anna Barbara, were British. Anna Barbara was a violinist. Edgar was a mining engineer and a member of the Liverpool Rathbone family, who were merchants and shipowners famous for their philanthropic work. 

Basil was the third of five children. He had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, and two younger siblings, Beatrice and John.Basil was very close with his younger brother and sister. The Rathbone’s fled South Africa when Basil was three years old, after Edgar was accused by the Boers of being a British spy.

Back in England, Basil attended the Repton School in Derbyshire from 1906 to 1910. After leaving school he briefly worked as an insurance clerk. Basil first trod the boards in April, 1911, at the Theatre Royal in Ipswitch. The play was The Taming Of The Shrew and Basil played the role of Hortensio. Between 1912 and 1915, Basil played various Shakespearean characters on stage.

When the First World War broke out Basil wouldn’t join up until 1916. Basil joined the British army London Scottish Regiment, a regiment which also included amongst its ranks three more future acting legends, Claude Rains, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. Basil was awarded a commission as a Second Lieutenant.

Basil’s younger brother John was also caught up in the war, serving in the 3rd Battalion, the Dorset Regiment. John had left school in 1915 and had volunteered to join up that same year. In February, 1917, the Rathbone brothers were reunited in London where they convalesced together. Basil was recovering from the measles and John was recovering from chest wounds sustained in the Battle Of The Somme. 

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One of my favourite photos of Basil. Image source IMDb.

As soon as Basil was well enough he rejoined his unit and was sent out to the trenches. John would not be well enough to return to the front until 1918. That year John’s regiment ended up being stationed close to Basil’s out in France, and the two brothers were once again reunited.

Basil remembered their reunion in his memoir. “John and I spent a glorious day together. He had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him wherever he went. In our mess on that night he made himself as well-liked as in his own regiment. We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle beside my bed and held it to my brother’s face—for some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A tremulous premonition haunted me – a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.” 

A few weeks later Basil had another premonition, one which came to pass with eerie accuracy. “At one o’clock on June 4, 1918, I was sitting in my dugout in the front line. Suddenly I thought of John, and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. In due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth.” Basil was absolutely distraught by his brother’s death, and in addition to dealing with that huge loss, he was also mourning his mum, who had sadly died the previous year.

In this extract from a letter that Basil wrote to his dad, it’s very clear not only how broken he was by John’s death, but also that he may have become convinced that he himself might die soon. I have all of Johnny’s letters parcelled up together and I will either bring them home on my next leave or arrange for someone to deliver them in person. I would send them as you asked but I would be afraid of them being lost. The communication trenches can take a beating and nothing can be relied on. If I can’t bring them myself for any reason there is a good sort here, another Lieutenant in our company who is under oath to deliver them, and who I have never known to shirk or break his word. So, you will get them, come what may. I’m sorry not to have written much the past weeks. It was unfair and you are very kind not to be angry. You ask how I have been since we heard, well, if I am honest with you, and I may as well be, I have been seething. I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. I’m even sure it was supposed to be me and he somehow contrived in his wretched Johnny-fashion to get in my way just as he always would when he was small. I want to tell him to mind his place. I think of his ridiculous belief that everything would always be well, his ever-hopeful smile, and I want to cuff him for a little fool. He had no business to let it happen and it maddens me that I shall never be able to tell him so, or change it or bring him back. I can’t think of him without being consumed with anger at him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him.

Basil was the intelligence officer for his battalion and had been leading night patrols into No Man’s Land for some time in order to gather info on the German’s. Basil persuaded his commanding officer to allow day patrols too, as it would be easier to gather vital information in the day than at night. These missions were extremely dangerous, and from how I see it, it’s really not hard to view Basil’s actions as possibly being some sort of death wish in response to John’s death. One of these daytime patrols saw Basil and his men disguise themselves as trees.Here’s a clip I came across from a 1957 interview, in which Basil describes that mission. The image jumps a bit I’m afraid.

Although he makes light of what he did and acts like it was no biggie, the reality was that it was extremely dangerous work for him to undertake. In recognition of the daylight patrols he undertook, Basil was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. After the war ended, Basil returned to acting on the stage in the UK. His marriage to his wife Marion sadly broke down and the pair separated in 1919, although they didn’t divorce and Basil still financially supported both his wife, and his young son, Rodion. 

In 1923, Basil travelled to America, where he starred in the play The Swan at the Cort Theatre in New York. That same year he met scriptwriter Ouida Bergere, and the pair fell in love. Basil obtained a divorce from Marion and he and Ouida married on the 18th of April,1926. 

Ouida and Basil sadly suffered the loss of their baby in 1928, and in 1939 the pair adopted a baby girl, who they named Cynthia. Cynthia sadly died in 1969 aged just 30.  Unfortunately Ouida had a weak spot for throwing lavish Hollywood parties and she spent Basil’s money like it was going out of style. Sadly this led to Basil taking on screen work far beneath his talents in later years in order to pay off the huge bills piling up.  Despite her issues with money, it seems that Basil never stopped loving his wife and was utterly devoted to her.

Basil’s son, Rodion moved to America and lived with his dad and stepmother for a time, and he even acted in a couple of his dad’s films. In 1938, Ouida organised a lavish wedding reception for Rodion and his bride Caroline Fisher. It all got out of hand with press and celebrities turning up. Poor Rodion and Caroline felt as though Ouida took over and that their special day wasn’t their day any longer. This unfortunately led to words being exchanged between the couple and Ouida. Basil sided with his wife and from that moment on father and son became estranged. Very sad indeed. 

In 1926, Basil and the rest of the cast of the play The Captive were famously arrested for offending public morals -although these charges were later dropped- and the play was permanently closed down. The play sees the wife of Basil’s character fall in love with another woman. Feathers were ruffled and many pearls clutched due to the subject matter. Basil was furious at this censorship, as he and the rest of the cast felt the subject matter was something which was important to talk about in the open.

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Basil as Detective Vance. Image source IMDb.

Basil had transitioned into film work in the Silent era, appearing in his first film in 1921. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until the 1930’s rolled around that he really hit his stride on screen. In 1929 he played Detective Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case(released in 1930). While the acting isn’t that great on the whole, it’s nice to see Basil in the lead role. The film amusingly contains a scene where a character refers to Basil’s Philo Vance and his companion as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Ten years later of course Basil would famously don that deerstalker hat and play Conan Doyle’s master detective. 

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Basil takes a seat on the beach in Captain Blood. Image source IMDb.

During the 1930’s Basil impressed in a wide variety of films including Anna Karenina(1935), David Copperfield(1935), Romeo & Juliet(1936), Make A Wish(1937), A Tale Of Two Cities( in which he plays a real swine, 1935), The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), If I Were King(1938), Son Of Frankenstein(1939).

One of my favourite performances from him during the 30’s is as the dashing pirate, Levasseur, in Captain Blood(1935), a film which saw him co-star with Errol Flynn for the first time. I love Basil’s performance in this film. He’s full of so much energy and plays a great rogue with a deadly edge to him. The gritty beach fight between Basil and Errol is edge of your seat stuff.

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Basil and Errol in The Dawn Patrol. Image source IMDb.

In 1938, Basil starred in The Dawn Patrol,a film which I think features one of his best performances. Basil plays Major Brand, a Royal Flying Corps squadron commander during WW1, who is edging ever closer to a nervous breakdown following the loss of so many of his men. You can see the heartache and weariness of this character written all over Basil’s face.

It’s a very poignant performance and I’m certain that Basil reached deep into his own traumatic memories of WW1 to help him capture Brand’s emotional state. The film would see him work with Errol Flynn for the third and final time, and I think Errol also does some of his best work here. 

The year 1939 was an important one for Basil. WW2 began and Basil wanted to serve in the war, but he was turned down from active service due to his age. He helped the war effort as best he could though through fundraising, entertaining troops and volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. 

Apparently author Margaret Mitchell’s preferred choice to play Captain Rhett Butler in the 1939 film adaptation of her novel Gone With The Wind was Basil Rathbone. I like Clark Gable as Rhett, but I have to admit to wondering many a time how Basil would have played that character. I for one think he would have been brilliant as Rhett. 1939 was to become the key year in Basil’s film career. It was the year in which he first played the character with whom he has become forever linked, a chap by the name of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

                                   Basil dons the Deerstalker. Image source IMDb.

With his thin facial features and uncanny resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations of Holmes in the Strand Magazine, it’s little wonder that Basil was cast in the role of Sherlock Holmes. For many he has become the ultimate screen Holmes and it’s really not hard to see why so many feel that way. He perfectly captured the intellect and many facets of Sherlock Holmes. Personally I think that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are the greatest screen Holmes and Watson, but coming in a close second for me is Basil Rathbone’s superb portrayal.  

If Basil’s films had been more authentic adaptations of the stories, and if his Watson had been more like the character in the stories, then I think his 14 film run would be able to be called the best with no contest. As much as I love his film series, what stops them from being the ultimate Holmes screen adaptations in my opinion, is that most of the plots bear little resemblance to any of Doyle’s stories. The other issue for me is dear Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Basil and Nigel were good friends and Basil sent the following message to Nigel when he was offered the role of Holmes, “Willie dear, do play Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, we’ll have such fun.” 

Nigel accepted the role and thus a beloved screen team was born. On screen Basil and Nigel’s real life affection for one another is evident and this helps us buy into the friendship and bond between Holmes and Watson. Unfortunately the way in which Watson is portrayed in these films is frankly just awful.

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Holmes and Watson. Image source IMDb.

While Nigel’s Watson is certainly lovable and tries hard, he is also extremely slow minded and bumbling. He is more of a source of comedy than anything else. This portrayal is at odds with the intelligent and capable medical man and army veteran that Watson is in the books. Frankly this screen portrayal of Watson grates on me, even though I do adore the old dude for his love and loyalty to Holmes and his desperate desire to do all he can to help out where he can. 

Basil and Nigel first took up residence at 221B Baker Street in an adaptation of the most famous Holmes story of them all – The Hound Of The Baskervilles. It’s one of the best adaptations of the story and has a brilliant gothic atmosphere. Weirdly though Basil is listed second on the cast list beneath Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. The success of this film quickly led Twentieth Century Fox studios to make a second film entitled The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which was released later the same year. In the sequel the great Ida Lupino joins the lads as Ann Brandon, a young woman who finds herself in desperate need of Holmes’s help.

These two films would be the only ones of the Rathbone/Bruce films to be set in the Victorian era and they would also be the last films of the series to be made at Fox. Alongside the films, Basil and Nigel also played Holmes and Watson in the radio series The New Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which began airing in 1939. Basil remained on the radio series until 1946 when he was replaced by Tom Conway. Nigel continued to play Watson until 1947.

                             Holmes is on the case. Image source IMDb. 

The other 12 films in the Rathbone/Bruce series would be made at Universal Studios between 1941 and 1944. These later films were interestingly set in the modern day(1940’s), and this of course all long before the Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller modern day set Holmes series came along with their supposedly new spin on the character. The remaining 12 films also have a lot of WW2 propaganda in them. My favourites of the 14 films are The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Terror By Night, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl Of Death, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The House Of Fear. 

While Basil was at first very enthusiastic about playing Holmes, the enthusiasm quickly wore off and he gave up the role. The role was something of a double edged sword for Basil. On the one hand it brought worldwide fame and popularity, but on the other it led to him being typecast and forever after associated with Holmes. It’s easy to understand his frustration at the situation he found himself in. 

Basil refused to renew his film and radio contracts in 1946,  and he returned instead to working in the theatre. I get the impression that the theatre was always his first love and that it was on the stage where he felt most comfortable. In 1947 he played the odious Dr. Sloper in the stage production of The Heiress(a performance which saw him rewarded with a Tony Award). When the film adaptation of The Heiress was made in 1949, Ralph Richardson was cast as Dr. Sloper. Once again, as much as I enjoy Ralph Richardson’s performance, I do find myself imagining what Basil would have been like in that screen role instead.

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Basil crosses swords with Tyrone Power in a great film from 1940 called Mark Of Zorro. Image source IMDb.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Basil was sadly appearing in some real rubbish on screen, and he appeared on screen less and less. I think his last great film role was as Sir Ravenhurst in The Court Jester(1955).

In the 1960’s Basil went on tour with his one man show entitled In And Out Of Character(also the name of his memoir). In these shows he spoke about his life and career, as well as reciting Shakespeare and poetry. 

Basil died suddenly after suffering a heart attack in his study at home, on the 21st July,1967. He was 75 years old.

Basil’s death was a huge loss for the theatre and film industry. I’d like to think that he would be touched by how much love and respect there is for him today, both as an actor, and also for the real man behind the suave screen image. 

As he lived and died long before I was even born, it is a great regret of mine that I never had the chance to see him act on stage. I adore his films and think he left quite the impressive legacy behind him for future generations to enjoy. Basil Rathbone truly was one of the best. A few films that I really love Basil in are the Sherlock Holmes series, Captain Blood, The Dawn Patrol, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Make A Wish, Sin Takes A Holiday. 

Here’s some interesting trivia to end with. Basil’s distant cousin was Henry Rathbone, who was sitting next to President and Mrs. Lincoln the night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theatre in Washington. Rathbone tried to stop the assassin John Wilkes Booth and was stabbed by him. He would never get over not being able to prevent Lincoln’s murder and tragically went insane.  

Are you a Basil Rathbone fan? I’d love to hear from you. 

 

The Duchess Of Duke Street (1976-1977)

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This is my own entry for my Small Screen blogathon being held on the 20th of this month.  If you would like to join the blogathon there is still time to do so. Find more details and sign up here.

I am writing about the British TV series The Duchess Of Duke Street

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Louisa hard at work in the kitchen. Screenshot by me.

This British series is based upon the life of a real Edwardian woman called Rosa Lewis(1867-1952). Rosa was a renowned cook and she also owned the Cavendish Hotel in London (which is still open today).

Rosa was famous throughout British society for her cooking, and also for the rumour that she and Prince Edward (later King Edward VII)were having an affair. It’s not difficult to see why her story inspired this series to be made. 

John Hawkesworth (the man who helped Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins turn Upstairs, Downstairs into the great success it became)produced The Duchess of Duke Street. Series that John were involved with were noted for their period detail, and a great many of them became huge successes.  

One of my favourite series that John was involved with is the Granada TV series The Adventures, Return and Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which starred Jeremy Brett (in my opinion the best Sherlock Holmes ever captured on screen).

The Duchess Of Duke Street is another of John’s high quality series. I don’t simply love this one for its story and setting, I love this one because it depicts a woman trying out and succeeding in business at a time when women just didn’t do such things. Louisa Trotter is the main character of the series, and she becomes a successful cook and businesswoman. She doesn’t take no for an answer and she never gives up even when things are tough for her. 

Louisa works with men, she is in charge of men and she gains the respect and admiration of men. I find Louisa quite an inspirational character really, she is not content to stay a wife or a servant. Louisa wants more out of life, she wants to be seen as an equal to the men she works with and she achieves that. 

The series is set in London between 1900 and 1925. We follow the life of Louisa Trotter(Gemma Jones), a young cockney woman who wants to be a cook more than anything else. Working very hard she learns the art of making food. Her food is acknowledged as being superb and is very well liked by all who taste it.

As the years go on, Louisa becomes one of the best cooks in London and becomes the owner of the Bentinck Hotel. The Bentinck is more like an apartment building than a hotel, those who stay there love it and many consider it their home away from home. Louisa has a relationship with the Prince of Wales(later to become King Edward VII), throughout the series Louisa looks back on her relationship with him very fondly.

The real love of Lousia’s life though is the handsome and outgoing aristocrat Charlie Tyrrell(Christopher Cazenove). Their relationship is extremely complex, and it is their relationship that helped make this series become a real favourite of mine. Louisa and Charlie’s story really is the heart and soul of the series.

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Charlie. Screenshot by me.

Louisa and Charlie become the best of friends and later on become lovers. They both want their relationship to become something more, but they just never seem to be able to find the right moment to change the nature of the relationship.

They have a daughter together who they call Lottie(Lalla Ward). She is raised by tenants of Charlie’s on his country estate. Charlie helps Louisa run the Bentinck and also keeps a suite of rooms there. 

Louisa and Charlie are not the only focus of the series though. Louisa’s loyal staff at the hotel include the dutiful doorman Starr(John Cater),a former soldier who speaks his mind and whose best friend is his dog Fred. Merriman(John Welsh)the elderly head waiter who wouldn’t thank you for suggesting he retire. Bubbly Welsh maid Mary(Victoria Plunckett). The assistant cook, Mrs. Cochrane (Mary Healey), and the former soldier turned gambler, Major Smith-Barton(Richard Vernon). Louisa and her staff become like family and they share the good and bad times together.

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Mr. Merriman. Screenshot by me.

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Mr. Starr. Screenshot by me.

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Mary. Screenshot by me.

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The Major. Screenshot by me.

Besides the relationship between Charlie and Louisa, my favourite relationship in the series is the one between Louisa and the Major. He becomes a father figure to her and a very good friend. His confession to her at the end of the series regarding his feelings for her is one of my all time favourite scenes from the series.

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Louisa salutes Charlie as he leaves for the trenches. Screenshot by me.

The second half of the series focuses on the brutal and upsetting events of World War One and its aftermath. Louisa turns the hotel into a place for only British soldiers to be able stay. Charlie has to go off to fight in the war. Tragedy, pain and sorrow sadly lie in wait for our characters.

I also love how Gemma portrays Louisa’s unwillingness to show any sort of vulnerability, even when she’s alone with Charlie, she very seldom lets her guard down. It is like she always has to appear strong and tough. I think that she feels that way because she is afraid that to appear vulnerable would make her appear weak.

At times it has to be said that Gemma’s shrieking when things don’t go the way Louisa wants them to, does very easily grate on the viewer, but it is all a part of this character and I really like how Gemma shows us that Louisa has flaws and is not perfect. I also like that Louisa’s determination to never be vulnerable is also her weakness, because she makes life more difficult for herself due to her always hiding her inner self. Louisa is a very interesting character indeed. One of Gemma Jones’s best performances I’d say. Since this series aired, Gemma has gone on to become one of our most beloved actresses. 

Christopher Cazenove is so lovable as the fun loving and decent Charlie. I like how we see him transition from playboy, to the more mature Lord Charles, and finally to damaged soldier. Christopher is a great favourite of mine and I never understood why he never became a much bigger star. He was always a welcome presence on screen and this is one of best performances as far as I’m concerned. 

This series is a real character piece and it is filled with great characters, great performances and many memorable storylines. This series is one that really gets you caught up the characters lives and you feel for them. I love it because of that, but I also love it for its depiction of Edwardian life.

I also find the food preparation sequences fascinating. There were some dishes that Louisa prepared that I had never heard of before and they look delicious. I also love how much effort she put into making her meals. It’s also fascinating to me to see how much of an event evening meals were back then, they were almost ritualistic (different cutlery for different dishes, what can be served at what time)and I love the fancy table decorations and food presentations.

Watching series like this really lets you see just what has changed in life. I for one have never seen a dinner table like some of the ones we see in this. I’ve never seen food displayed in such beautiful ways either (even when going out to eat at restaurants) it goes to show that we may have progressed in some ways, but I think we’ve gone back a step or two in terms of food and food presentation. 

If you have seen this series what did you think of it?

Check back on Tuesday for news of the next blogathon I’m hosting. I know, I’m totally addicted to blogathons. 🙂

 

 

 

Wings (1927)

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Charles Buddy Rogers in Wings. Image source IMDb.

It’s been a while since I did a Silent film review. I’d like to talk about one of my favourites from this era. It is set during World War One, and it is one of the all time great war films. It is also one of the best of the big screen epics. The film is Wings.

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The camera puts us right in the middle of the air fight sequences. Screenshot by me.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it is pretty remarkable just how well Wings stands up when it is viewed today. 90 years after its original release, this film still remains a gripping and realistic depiction of war and also of aerial combat. 

As well it’s realistic portrayal of the brutality and carnage of war, Wings also manages to be a touching portrayal of friendship and takes a look at the pain of unrequited love.

The performances in this film really come across to me as being very natural. Arlen and Rogers are both equally excellent. I think they both do a very good job of conveying their characters transitions from wide eyed, eager and very apprehensive newbies in the air force, to becoming seasoned and traumatised veterans, all while still being such young lads.

Clara Bow delivers the real standout performance for me. Clara is effervescent and luminous one moment, and then broken hearted and vulnerable the next. This is one of her best performances from the Silent era I think.

Henry B. Walthall and Julia Swayne Gordon are both very moving as David’s mum and dad. The scene where they say goodbye to him as he leaves for the war has me welling up. Henry plays the dad as doing that stiff upper lip thing, he won’t allow himself to break down or hug his son because if he did he’d never let him go. Julia makes the mother more emotional, but she still restrains her full emotions from showing.

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One of my favourite shots in the whole film. Screenshot by me.

This film was the first ever Best Picture Oscar winner (and until The Artist won in 2011, it was the only Silent film to win the award) and it’s not difficult to see why there was so much love for this one. WW1 would have been fresh in the minds of the audiences watching this when it was released; they no doubt would have been able to really connect with the experiences of the lead trio, and would have been able to relate to the characters wartime experiences. The film does a good job of capturing the horror of war, and also of the fact that death will come and claim anyone at any time.

The performances and characters keep my interest throughout, but it is hard to deny the real stars of this one are the aerial sequences. Real planes and hundreds of pilots feature in the film. The aerial sequences were shot on location at Kelly Field Air Force Annex, in San Antonio, Texas.These aerial scenes really keep you on the edge of your seat and add a great deal of realism to the film. I think these sequences take you deeper into the experiences of Jack and David. These sequences also have a documentary look about them.

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Charles Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow in a publicity photo for Wings. Image source IMDb.

One of my reasons for loving Silent films so much is that I love how visually beautiful and unique so many of them look. I also have a real fondness for tinting in Silent films. Many Silent films were tinted in various different colours and there is some glorious screen tinting to be enjoyed in this one. I especially love the golden tint which features heavily throughout. I also think that the intertitle cards look very nice too.What I like most about Wings is that it is a film which manages to be an intimate human drama, while also being set against an epic backdrop of global warfare.

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Jack and David. Screenshot by me.

In a small town in America life is idyllic. The youth are out enjoying life to the full. Best friends Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers)and David (Richard Arlen)compete for the affections of the beautiful and wealthy Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston).

Jack is pretty slow (seriously, how on earth could he miss her signals!)to see that his neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with him. She shares his adventurous nature and is clearly the gal for him.

America soon becomes embroiled in the First World War and Jack and David sign up to join the Air Corps. Headed overseas they are soon fighting against the Germans.  Mary also joins the fight, by signing up as a nurse and ambulance driver. Heartbreak, joy and a tragic twist of fate lie in store for our trio.

The film is notable for several reasons. Firstly of course there are all those spectacular aerial sequences. I like how we also see the pilots in the cockpit and that really makes us a part of the scene as we see the personal effect of these impressive air battles.The film also features some very striking photography and camerawork. The way the camera zooms across the tables of a nightclub until we find Jack is very memorable. There is also the scene where Jack drinks champagne and we see the bubbles float up out of his glass. When he later gets quite drunk he sees giant bubbles everywhere.

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Gary Cooper as Cadet White. Screenshot by me.

The film also features a very young Gary Cooper in a small role. Coop makes quite an impression as Cadet White, an ill fated fellow pilot who meets Jack and David. It Happened One Night fans should also keep an eye out for the great Roscoe Karns, who appears here in a small role.

The film also features a famous kiss between Jack and David, many people see that kiss as a gay moment. I can see why they might think that, but is not supposed to be seen as a romantic kiss though. The kiss is simply deep affection and love between best friends. Remember the reason why the kiss is taking place and see it in that context. I can see why this moment made quite an impact though, and nothing like that would be seen on screen again for decades after this. 

The film also contains a few scenes of nudity. There’s the scene in the examination room when the lads go to sign up with the airforce. Clara is also shown nude in the scene where Mary is caught getting undressed in the hotel.

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Clara Bow as Mary. Screenshot by me.

My only issue with the film is its treatment of Mary. I wish we had been given a few more scenes showing her experiences during the war in more detail. It wasn’t only David and Jack who were taking part in the war, she was there too working as a nurse.

I wanted more of her story instead of her simply being the love interest. I also hate the double standard of how she is punished when she is found in Jack’s hotel room. compared to what happens to him. They were both breaking the rules, so they both should have been disciplined equally!

My favourite scenes are the following. Mary helping Jack with his car. The plane crashing into the house which has rows of freshly dug war graves right next door to it. David and Jack meeting Cadet White, sharing his chocolate, getting to know him and then hearing tragic news about him. All the scenes featuring the patriotic Herman Schwimpf. David saying goodbye to his family. David and Jack looking through Cadet White’s personal belongings. Mary thinking she has hurt a soldier when she crashes her ambulance. Jack visting David’s parents. The older woman helping Mary choose a dress to wear when she is with Jack. Mary finding Jack in the nightclub, the look she gives the other woman he is with is priceless(if looks could kill, then that gal would be flat on the floor). All the scenes featuring the planes. I also love the intertitle saying the film is dedicated to the dead airman”To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated.”

This is a film that I never get tired of watching. It moves and impresses in equal measure. It is one of the very best films to be made during the Silent era. Any other fans of this one? If you’ve never seen it I highly recommend you buy the Blu-Ray disc, the film looks stunning in that format and there are some good extras too.