There have been more adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None” than any of her other novels. That is quite an achievement. The only other novel that comes close to producing this number of adaptations is her 1934 novel, ‘Murder on the Orient Express”.
Christie’s 1934 novel managed to produce four adaptations, as far as I know – two movie releases and two television movies. The least famous of this quartet of adaptations was the television movie that aired on CBS in 2001. This version is famous or infamous for one thing – it is the only one that is not a period drama and set in the present day. “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” made a few other changes to Christie’s narrative. The television movie’s beginning established a complicated romance between Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot and a sexy younger woman named Vera Rossakoff. The number of suspects was reduced from twelve to nine. And the Orient Express was stalled by a mudslide due to heavy rain and not a snowbank caused from an avalanche. Due to the film’s setting, some of the characters’ backgrounds and professions had been changed to reflect the late 20th century and early 21st century setting.
“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Istanbul, Turkey; where private detective Hercule Poirot had just solved the murder of a dancer at a local nightclub. After a brief quarrel with his lady love, Vera Rossakoff, Poirot sets out to fly back to London. But an encounter with his old friend Wolfgang Bouc, an executive with the the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, leads Poirot to return to London via the famed Orient Express train. During the eastbound train journey, an American millionaire named Samuel Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him from a potential assassin who has sent him threatening letters. However, Poirot refuses the job due to his dislike of Ratchett. During the second night of the journey, heavy rain causes a landslide, blocking the train to continue its journey. And Rachett is found stabbed to death inside his compartment, the following morning. Bouc recruits Poirot to solve Rachett’s murder.
I have a confession to make. I had disliked “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” when I first saw it on television all those years ago. My main reason for disliking the television movie was the fact that it had a modern setting, instead of one set in the 1930s. It was not a period movie. And for a story like Christie’s 1934 novel, I resented it. However, I do believe the film’s modern setting provided one major flaw for its narrative. Since the late 20th century, passengers for the Simplon Orient Express have to book passage on the train long before the date of its departure – six months to a year, more or less. The idea of Poirot managing to get a compartment aboard the Orient Express at such short notice in 2001 strikes me as pretty implausible. And when one adds to the fact that the train travels to and from Istanbul at least once a year, makes this narrative in a modern setting even more implausible. Another problem I had with “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was it made the same mistake as the 2010 adaptation from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. They used the wrong rail cars. The 2010 television movie used the blue and cream Pullman cars for the journey from Istanbul to Calais. The 2001 movie used the brown and cream Pullman cars, usually reserved for the Orient Express from London to Folkstone, as the main train, as shown below:
Do I have any other problems with “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”? Well . . . yes, I have one further problem. But I will address it later. Aside from these problems, did I enjoyed this recent re-watch of the television movie? Yes, I did. More than I thought I would. Which is ironic, considering that I disliked the movie so much when I first saw all those years ago. I finally realized that I had automatically resented the film for not being a period drama. And over the years, I had erroneously believed that the movie was set aboard a modern train and not on a restored one from the past. It took my recent viewing of the television movie for me to realize I had been wrong. However, I did noticed that the sleeping compartments did look surprisingly bigger than usual. Despite some modern updating in the film’s visual look, the characters’ background and dialogue; “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” did a first-rate job of adapting Christie’s novel.
What many might find surprising is that screenwriter Stephen Harrigan and director Carl Schenkel did not inflict any drastic changes to Christie’s plot, unlike some recent Christie adaptations from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series and one or two miniseries produced by Sarah Phelps. Harrigan and Schenkel did not drastically change the movie’s narrative, aside from reducing the number of suspects and having the train delayed by a mud slide, instead of a snow drift. Yes, the backgrounds and professions of the characters were changed due to the modern setting. And characters also change nationalities – like Bob Arbuthnot, an American tech CEO (British Army colonel in Christie’s novel); Senora Alvarado, a widow of a South American dictator (a Russian princess in the novel); Phililp and Helena von Strauss, a German or Austrian couple traveling the world (the husband was a Hungarian diplomat in the novel); and even Wolfgang Bouc, the Franco-German Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits executive (who was solely French in the novel). This version of “Murder on the Orient Express” was not the first or last time when some of the characters’ backgrounds and nationalities were changed. All four adaptations (including the highly regarded 1974 version) were guilty of this. But despite these changes, Harrigan and Schenkel stuck to Christie’s narrative. And thanks to Harrigan’s direction, this version proved to be a lot better than I had originally surmised.
I certainly had no problems with most of the film’s performances. “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” provided solid performances from Amira Casar, Kai Wiesinger, Dylan Smith, Nicolas Chagrin, Adam James, Tasha de Vasconcelos, and Fritz Wepper, who managed to create an effective screen team with star Alfred Molina as the investigative pair of Poirot and Monsieur (or Herr) Bouc. I thought David Hunt did an excellent job of conveying the aggressive, overprotective and slightly arrogant traits of American CEO, Bob Arbuthnot. I enjoyed Leslie Caron’s colorful, yet autocratic portrayal of Senora Alvarado, the widow of a South American dictator. Meredith Baxter was equally colorful as an American character actress, traveling around Europe as a tourist. Her portrayal of Mrs. Hubbard reminded me of a younger version of a character she had portrayed in the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND” – but without the Southern accent. And I was really impressed by Natasha Wightman’s performance as British tutor Mary Debenham. What really impressed me about Wightman’s performance is that her portrayal of Miss Debenham was the closest to the literary character than any of the other versions. There was one performance that fell flat with me and it came from Peter Strauss, who portrayed the victim, Samuel Rachett. If I must be brutally honest, I found it rather hammy. Strauss, whom has always struck me as a first-rate actor in other productions, seemed to be screaming in nearly every scene. However, there is one scene in which I found his performance impressive. The scene involved Rachett’s attempt to hire Poirot as his bodyguard and with a performance that permeated with subtlety and menace, Strauss reminded audiences of the excellent actor that he had always been through most of his career.
I have never come across any real criticism of Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Well . . . I did come across one article that discussed Molina’s performance from Vulture magazine. But the critic seemed more focused on the movie’s modern setting and Poirot’s relationship with Vera Rossakoff, than Molina’s performance. Personally, I thought the British actor did a superb job in portraying the detective. He managed to capture all of Poirot’s intelligence, mild eccentricities, slight pomposity and talent for emotional manipulation. One thing I can say about Molina’s portrayal is that his performance as Poirot was probably the most subtle I have seen on a movie or television screen. Whether someone would regard this as good or bad, is in the eye of the beholder. But I feel that this subtle performance suited Molina’s style. Some have commented that Molina’s Poirot was more “youthful” than other portrayals. Hmmmm . . . how odd. Molina was in his late 40s when he shot the television movie (perhaps 47 or 48 years old). Yet, Albert Finney was a decade younger when he portrayed Poirot in the 1974 film and his Poirot came off as a middle-aged man. David Suchet was five or six years younger when he began his twenty-four years stint portraying the detective for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. And during those early years, his Poirot also seemed slightly middle-aged. Because of this, I find this observation of Molina’s Poirot as “youthful” rather questionable.
It is a pity that the “official” opinion of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is so negative. I used to share this opinion until I did a re-watch of the television film with a more open mind. Like others, I had been dismissive of the 2001 version, due to its modern setting. I now realize I had been rather narrow-minded and prejudiced. Despite its flaws – and it had a few – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” proved to be a lot better than I had originally surmised, thanks to director Carl Schenkel, Stephen Harrigan’s teleplay and an excellent cast led by the superb Alfred Molina. I hope that one day, other Christie fans would dismiss their prejudices against the movie’s setting and appreciate it for the entertaining production it truly is.
Ever since the release of the 2005 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, many STAR WARS have accused George Lucas of including a major blooper in the movie. In the eyes of these fans, Lucas’ major blooper was the death of Senator Padmé Amidala, wife of Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader and mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa.
How did Padmé die? Well in the 2005 movie, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi had paid her a visit in order to learn the whereabouts of Anakin, his former apprentice, following the fall of the Jedi Order. Padmé learned from Obi-Wan that Anakin had become the new apprentice of Sheev Palpatine, who is a Sith Lord. She also learned from the Jedi Master that Anakin had participated in the Jedi Purge at the Order’s Temple – a purge that included the deaths of all the Order’s younglings inside the Temple. Obi-Wan had questioned Padmé about Anakin’s whereabouts, but she refused to tell him. Instead, she departed for Mustafar to question Anakin about his actions, unaware that Obi-Wan had followed her. To make a long story short, Padmé tried to talk Anakin into dropping his Sith affliation, she failed due to Obi-Wan’s sudden appeared (he had placed a tracker on her starship), Anakin attacked Padmé with a Force choke before he ended up in a lightsaber duel against his former master. The duel ended in defeat for Anakin, who ended up slowly burning to death on a lava bank, minus his limbs. Obi-Wan transported Padmé and the couple’s droids to a medical facility on a large asteroid above Polis Massa, where she gave birth to Luke and Leia. Then she died.
Many STAR WARS fans have been in an uproar over Padmé’s death in “REVENGE OF THE SITH” for nearly sixteen years. They complained that the manner of her death – allowing her despair over Anakin and the Republic to affect her health following the twins’ deaths. I have already written one or two articles on that subject. But they also complained that her death on Polis Massa is a major blooper. A plot hole. And they claim that the discussion between Luke and Leia about Padmé in the 1983 movie, “STAR TREK: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, is the reason why Padmé’s death is a blooper. They claim that Leia’s memories of Padmé is proof that their mother should not have died immediately after their births in “REVENGE OF THE SITH”.
What exactly did Leia say to Luke when he had first questioned her about their mother? The following is their exchange:
Luke: Leia, do you remember your mother? Your real mother? Leia: Just a little bit. She died when I was very young. Luke: What do you remember? Leia: Just images, really. Feelings. Luke: Tell me. Leia: She was very beautiful. Kind, but sad. Why are you asking me all this?
Why do these fans still believe Padmé Amidala’s death in “REVENGE OF THE SITH” is a plot hole, based on her daughter Leia Organa’s memories? I never understood this. In “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, Leia had never stated that she had memories of Padme alive and with her. Not once. This is something that so many STAR WARS fans had assumed what happened without bothering to think. Leia had made it clear in her conversation with Luke that her memories of Padme were vague and mainly based on emotions and images. Which means that she may have unintentionally used the Force after she was born or had dreams of Padme via the Force. When these fans were confronted with this explanation, they immediately dismissed it. And I never understood why. Why was that explanation so hard to consider? When Luke had first arrived on Dagobah in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, Luke had stated that it looked familiar to him . . . despite having never been there. Both Luke and Leia have inherited their Force sensitivity, due to their father, Anakin Skywalker, who was regarded by many as being unusually strong in the Force. The saga’s movies have more than verified this.
And yet . . . many fans have continued to criticize “REVENGE OF THE SITH” for Padmé’s death. They also claimed that she should have survived the twins’ births in order to raise Leia for a few years on Alderaan, the homeworld of her fellow senator, Bail Organa. What in the hell? No parent in his or her right mind would give up one child and hand over another; unless he, she or both were were irrepsonsible parents. Nor do I recall the last half hour of “REVENGE OF THE SITH” being some remake of the 1961 Disney movie, “THE PARENT TRAP”. I do not recall Padmé and Anakin getting a divorce and deciding to split up their twins.
I cannot believe that so many fans believed (and still do) it was natural for Padmé to give up Luke and hand him over to the Lars family on Tattooine; and at the same time, keep Leia and take the latter with her to Alderaan. Are there any STAR WARS fans who understand what it means to be a parent? If Padme had survived childbirth, chances are she would have given up both Luke and Leia for their safety and disappeared to some remote location. Or . . . she would have kept the twins and disappeared to some remote location. Or . . . events would have played out like it did in “REVENGE OF THE SITH” – with Padmé’s death after the twins’ birth, followed with the twins being separated and handed over to different families.
But the idea of Padmé giving up one twin and handing over the other without Anakin being involved is just ludicrous to me. For her to do something like this would make her a callous mother who had selfishly preferred one child over the other. Yet . . . these fans seemed to believe that Leia’s memories of Padme via the Force is ludicrous. And I do not understand this. Leia Organa is Force sensitive . . . like her brother Luke Skywalker, her son Ben Solo and her father, Anakin Skywalker. Have so many STAR WARS actually forgotten this? Apparently so. Perhaps they simply wanted another excuse to criticize the Prequel Trilogy. Who knows?
The past forty to fifty years have seen a great deal of movies, documentaries and television productions about one of the most famous political families in the U.S., the Kennedys. But none of them have garnered as much controversy or criticism as this latest production, an eight-part television miniseries that aired back in April 2011.
Directed by Jon Cassar, “THE KENNEDYS” chronicled the family’s lives and experiences through the 1960s – mainly during President John F. Kennedy’s Administration. The miniseries also touched upon some of the family’s experiences and relationships before JFK first occupied the White House through flashbacks in Episode One, which also focused upon Election Day 1960. And Episode Eight covered the years between JFK’s assassination and the death of his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. But the meat of the miniseries centered on the years between January 1961 and November 1963. Unlike most productions about the Kennedys, which either covered JFK’s public experiences as President or the family’s private life; this miniseries covered both the public and private lives of the family.
Much to my surprise, “THE KENNEDYS” attracted a great deal of controversy before it aired. The miniseries had been scheduled to air on the History Channel for American audiences back in January of this year. However, the network changed its mind, claiming that “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”. Many, including director Jon Cassar, believed that the network had received pressure from sources with connection to the Kennedy family not to air the miniseries. Several other networks also declined to air the miniseries, until executives from the Reelz Channel agreed to do so. That network failed aired “THE KENNEDYS” back in April and other countries, including Canada and Great Britain also finally aired it. After viewing the miniseries, I do not understand why the History Channel had banned it in the first place.
The miniseries not only attracted controversy, but also mixed reviews from the critics. Well, to be honest, I have only come across negative reviews. If there were any positive commentary, I have yet to read any. For me, “THE KENNEDYS” is not perfect. In fact, I do not believe it is the best Hollywood production on the subject I have seen. The miniseries did not reveal anything new about the Kennedys. In fact, it basically covered old ground regarding both JFK’s political dealings with situations that included the Bay of Pigs, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also covered many of the very familiar topics of the Kennedys’ private lives – including the adulterous affairs of both JFK and Joseph Senior. Hell, even the miniseries’ take on the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed more like a rehash of the 2000 movie, “THIRTEEN DAYS”. In fact, the only aspect of this miniseries that struck me as new or original was the insinuation that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy may have received amphetamine shots (also taken by JFK) from a Doctor Max Jacobson, to boost her energy for the numerous duties of her office. And I have strong doubts over whether this is actually true.
I have one other major complaint about the miniseries – namely the final episode. Episode Eight covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives during the remainder of the 1960s, following JFK’s death. For me, this was a major mistake. Although Part One mainly covered Election Day in November 1960, it also featured flashbacks of the family’s history between the late 1930s and 1960. But the majority of the miniseries covered JFK’s presidency. In my opinion, ”THE KENNEDYS” should have ended with JFK’s funeral, following his assassination in Dallas. I realize that the miniseries also featured the lives of Bobby, Jacqueline, Joseph Senior, Rose and Ethel’s live in heavy doses, it still centered on Jack Kennedy. By continuing into one last episode that covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives following the President’s death, it seemed to upset the miniseries’s structure. If that was the case, the setting for ”THE KENNEDYS” should have stretched a lot further than the 1960s.
But despite my complaints, I still enjoyed “THE KENNEDYS”. For one thing, it did not bore me. The pacing struck me as top notch. And it lacked the dry quality of the more well-received 1983 miniseries, “KENNEDY”. Although I believe that particular miniseries was superior to this new one, it sometimes felt more like a history lesson than a historical drama. It is possible that the additions of sequences featuring the family’s personal lives and scandals may have prevented me from falling asleep. But even the scenes that featured JFK’s presidency struck me as interesting – especially the scenes about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Episode Three. I also enjoyed the flashbacks that supported the miniseries’ look into Joseph Kennedy Senior’s control over his children and the shaky marriage between JFK and Jacqueline. At least two particular flashbacks focused upon JFK’s affair with Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, and its near effect upon younger brother Bobby. One scene that really impressed me was Bobby’s first meeting with the starlet. Thanks to Cassar’s direction, along with Barry Pepper (Bobby Kennedy) and Charlotte Sullivan’s (Marilyn Monroe), the scene reeked with a sexual tension that left viewers wondering if the pair ever really had a tryst. Both Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes gave outstanding performances in two particular scenes that not only featured the explosive marriage between the President and First Lady, but also the depths of their feelings toward one another. The miniseries also scored with Rocco Matteo’s production designs. I was especially impressed by his re-creation of the White House, circa 1961. I was also impressed by Christopher Hargadon’s costume designs. He did a first-rate job in not only capturing the period’s fashions for both the male and female characters, but also in re-creating some of Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous outfits.
Aside from the pacing, the miniseries’ biggest strength turned out to be the cast. I have already commented upon Charlotte Sullivan’s excellent performance as Marilyn Monroe. But she her performance was not the only supporting one that impressed me. Kristin Booth gave a top-notch portrayal of Bobby Kennedy’s wife, Ethel. And she did this without turning the late senator’s wife into a one-note caricature, unlike other actresses. I was also impressed by Don Allison’s turn as future President, Lyndon B. Johnson. However, there were moments when his performance seemed a bit theatrical. I also enjoyed how both John White and Gabriel Hogan portrayed the rivalry between a young JFK and Joseph Junior during the late 1930s and early 1940s, with a subtlety that I found effective. However, both Tom Wilkinson and Diana Hardcastle really impressed me as the heads of the Kennedy clan – Joseph Senior and Rose Kennedy. They were really superb. Truly. I was especially impressed by Wilkinson’s handling of his New England accent, after recalling his bad American accent in 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”. And I had no idea that Diana Hardcastle was his wife. Considering their strong screen chemistry, I wonder if it is possible for husband and wife to act in front of a camera together, more often.
The best performances, in my opinion, came from Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Barry Pepper as JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, respectively. For some reason, Pepper’s portrayal of Bobby seemed to keep the miniseries grounded. He did a great job in capturing the former senator and Attorney General’s ability to maintain solidarity in the family; and also his conflict between continuing his service to JFK and the family, and considering the idea of pursuing his own profession. Greg Kinnear’s take on JFK struck me as different from any I have ever seen in previous movies or television productions. Yes, he portrayed the style, charm, intelligence and wit of JFK. He was also effective in conveying the President’s conflict between his lustful desires for other women, his love for his wife and any “alleged” guilt over his infidelity. There seemed to be a slightly melancholy edge in Kinnear’s performance that I have never seen in other actors who have portrayed JFK. But I feel that the best performance came from Katie Holmes in her portrayal of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Personally, I thought it was worthy of an award nomination. However, I doubt that anyone would nominate her. Pity. I thought she did a superb job in capturing not only the style and glamour of the famous First Lady, but also the latter’s complex and intelligent nature.
I am well aware that most critics were not impressed by the miniseries. Hell, I am also aware that a good number of viewers have expressed some contempt toward it. I could follow the bandwagon and also express a negative opinion of “THE KENNEDYS”. But I cannot. It is not the best production I have ever seen about the famous political family. It did not really provide anything new about the Kennedy family and as far as I am concerned, it had one episode too many. But I was impressed by Jon Cassar’s direction, along with the outstanding cast and first-rate production and costume designs. And thinking about all of this, I still do not understand why the History Channel went through so much trouble to reject the miniseries’ airing on its network.
Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season Two of “STAR TREK VOYAGER”. Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor; the series starred Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway:
FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “STAR TREK VOYAGER” SEASON TWO (1995-1996)
1. (2.11) “Manuevers” – After a team of the Kazon-Nistrim warriors steal some Federation technology during a raid against U.S.S. Voyager, Commander Chakotay goes after them on his own and is captured. Martha Hackett and Anthony De Longis guest-starred.
2. (2.21) “Deadlock” – While attempting to evade the organ-stealing Vidiians, a duplicate Voyager is created after it passes through a spatial scission; leaving one of the duplicate ships under attack and the other impervious to attack. Nancy Hower and Simon Billig guest-starred.
3. (2.20) “Investigations” – Lieutenant Tom Paris leaves Voyager and joins a Talaxian space convoy. But when he is kidnapped by former crew mate Seska and the Kazon-Nistrim, Neelix tries to flush out the traitor on board who has been colluding with them. Raphael Sbarge, Martha Hackett and Simon Billig guest-starred.
4. (2.05) “Non-Sequitur” – While on an Away mission, Ensign Harry Kim mysteriously wakes up and finds himself back in 24th century San Francisco, with no record of him ever joining Voyager’s crew. Louis Giambalvo, Jennifer Gatti and Mark Kiely guest-starred.
5. (2.19) “Lifesigns” – Voyager picks up a dying Vidiian woman and the Doctor saves her life by placing her consciousness in a holographic body. As the pair attempts to find a cure for the Phage killing her and her species, he falls in love. Susan Diol, Raphael Sbarge and Martha Hackett guest-starred.
Honorable Mention: (2.08) “Persistence of Vision” – When Voyager enters a new region of space, the crew begins to experience hallucinations from their past and of their desires. Carolyn Seymour, Warren Munson and Marva Hicks guest-starred.
The following is Chapter Seven of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:
Chapter Seven – Missouri Plains
April 16, 1849 Traveling through Missouri, I finally received my first glimpse of what a prairie looked like. I had imagined flatter land with no grass . . . not this rolling land filled with long tufts of grass. “You should see this land in full bloom in about a month from now,” Mr. James commented. “The grass becomes just as high as your knees.”
No wonder most emigrant guides insist that wagon trains depart at least by early May. Judging from the amount of prairie grass that now grows, I could see that it was not enough to sustain teams of oxen and mules during a 2,000-mile trek . . . let alone 200 miles.
Mr. James decided that it would be best for us to follow the Missouri River along the bluffs just north of it. Since it happened to be early spring, the river would be subjected to floods, which could be deadly due to its fast currents. Casting my eyes upon the Missouri below, I spotted a steamboat with a stern wheel churning westward. A brief longing to be aboard that boat rose within me. I still long to reach Independence as soon as possible, and finally begin the journey across the continent. Oh, the impatience of youth!
April 19, 1849 The wagon company experienced a chilling moment, early this afternoon. A group of riders appeared from the south and interrupted our small procession at a crossroads. Judging from their hostile expressions, along with the shackles and ropes they carried; a suspicion came to me that these men might be bounty riders or even worse. Unfortunately, I proved to be right. The riders had turned out to be a group of lawmen and slave catchers searching for a black fugitive. One fellow, a swarthy creature with black whiskers demanded a search of our wagons. And considering that he and his companions were better armed than us, we had no choice but to comply.
It came to no surprise that the slave catchers had lingered around our wagon longer than the others. That same bewhiskered gentleman who led the bunch demanded to see Alice’s and my papers. Mr. James’ face turned red and insisted that we were free people of color. “And how would you know that for sure, Mister?” our tormentor demanded. “How long have you known these nigras?”
“Almost two weeks,” Mr. James replied. “They happen to be from Ohio.” The whiskered man shot back, “They could have said that. Maybe they’re lying.” This did not bode well for Alice and myself.
Fortunately, Mr. James never relented in his defense of us. “And how would you know?” he replied scathingly. “Can you recognize an Ohio accent when you hear it? And why are you harassing these two? Surely, you know who you’re looking for?”
I saw flashes of anger, resentment and sheer embarrassment in the slaver’s dark eyes. He murmured a quick oath and walked away. The other men continued their search through our wagons with no success. The fugitive could not be found. With no reason to delay us any further, the search party allowed us to continue our journey. However, our caravan had not traveled three miles when Alice noticed a figure in a thicket to our right – a lone rider.
“He looks like one of those slave catchers,” my sister commented. I squinted for a closer look. Sure enough, there was Mr. Whiskers riding by himself. Following our wagon party. If the fellow was so determined to capture this slave, he was surely barking up the wrong tree. Or was he merely determined to prove that we were slave stealers? If so, I pray that his fugitive never seek refuge with our group . . . at least until we manage to put Missouri and slave catchers behind us for good.
Following the release of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind”, some Hollywood studios scrambled to find a way to cash in on its success. Producer David O. Selznick managed to purchase the film rights to Mitchell’s novel. However, Warner Brothers Studios decided to do its own Southern melodrama called “JEZEBEL”.
Directed by William Wyler, “JEZEBEL” starred Bette Davis in the title role as a headstrong New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden in the early 1850s. Julie’s vanity and willful nature leads her to a series of actions, culminating in the loss of the man she loves, a banker named Preston “Pres” Dillard. The movie begins with Julie and Preston engaged and the former demanding the full attention of the latter. When Pres refuses to drop his work and accompany her on a shopping expedition for the upcoming Olympus Ball, Julie decides to retaliate by ordering a red dress (in New Orleans society, virgins wear white). Although Pres accompanies Julie to the ball and dances with her, he eventually has enough of her temperamental and foolhardy behavior and breaks off their engagement. Then he leaves New Orleans to spend some time up North in New York City. Julie eventually realizes she had made a major blunder and spends a year grieving over her broken engagement. However, she becomes determined to mend fences with him, when he returns to New Orleans. But their reunion proves to be bittersweet, due to Pres’ new companion – his bride – and the potential danger of a yellow fever pandemic within the city.
The road to the 1938 movie began with playwright Owen Davis Jr., whose play of the same title made its Broadway debut in December 1933. Starring Miriam Hopkins, the play only ran on Broadway for over a month before it eventually flopped. Someone at Warner Brothers must have seen some kind of potential in this Southern melodrama for the studio had purchased the play back in 1937. Rumor has it that the studio had specifically purchased it for Bette Davis as compensation for her failure to win the part of Scarlett O’Hara for David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Mitchell’s novel. The truth is that Selznick had yet to consider his leading lady for the 1939 film back in 1937. I think Warner Brothers saw the story provided a juicy role for Davis and purchased it. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in the 1933 play, had hoped to be cast in the coveted role. Needless to say, she was very disappointed when Wallis informed her that he had only “considered her” for the role. Warner Brothers had originally cast Jeffrey Lynn for the role of Julie’s true love, banker Preston Dillard. However, the producers of a play he was appearing in refused to release him and the studio eventually turned to 20th Century-Fox star Henry Fonda as a last minute replacement. As for the film’s director, Wallis and studio chief Jack Warner’s first choice as director was Edmund Goulding (who had directed “GRAND HOTEL”), who was eventually dropped. Next, they approached Michael Curtiz (future “CASABLANCA” director), who dropped out at the last moment. They finally hired William Wyler, who had a contract with Samuel Goldwyn at the time.
There have been many comparisons between “JEZEBEL” and the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Considering the settings and leading female roles for both films, I could see why. But this is about my opinion of “JEZEBEL”. The 1938 movie is not perfect. Since the film is set in the Antebellum South, naturally it would feature characters that are African-American slaves. With the exception of two characters, the majority of them are portrayed in the usual “happy slaves” literary trope that has marred a good number of Old Hollywood films set during the 19th century. You know . . . infantilizing the black characters. One scene featuring Julie’s maid, Zette, enthusiastically accepting Julie’s infamous red gown as a present. Now, any maid worth her salt would recognize the gown as trash. A black maid from the 1939 comedy, “DAY TIME WIFE”, certainly regarded a cheap rabbit fur as trash and contemptuously rejected it as a throwaway present. But this wince-inducing portrayal of blacks in “JEZEBEL” seemed to be at its zenith in one particular scene that featured the Halcyon slaves greeting Julie’s guests upon their arrival at her plantation . . . with cheers. Mind you, I have seen worse in the 1957 movie, “BAND OF ANGELS”. Another major scene that I found equally wince-inducing featured Julie and a group of young slaves surrounding her, while they sang “Raise a Ruckus” to her guests. Yikes. I find it ironic that a film like “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which was equally guilty of its cliched portrayal of African-Americans, managed to feature at least three or four memorable black characters. I cannot say the same for “JEZEBEL”, despite having the likes of Eddie Anderson (who was also in the 1939 Best Picture winner) and Theresa Harris in its cast. William Wyler redeemed himself, I am happy to say, in his 1956 movie, “FRIENDLY PERSUASION”. Ironically, a good number of the white minor characters – namely men – seemed to be stuck in some kind of “Southern gentlemen” cliché from stories set in the Old South. You know the type – he wears a wide planter’s hat, while either holding a glass of booze, a cigar or both; while discussing duels or putting down Yankees. This was especially apparent in one of the film’s first scenes at a saloon, inside the famous St. Louis Hotel.
There is also one scene, earlier in the film, that left me scratching my head. It featured Preston Dillard at his bank’s board meeting, discussing the possibility of constructing rail lines through New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. I realize that the other board members’ negative reaction to Pres’ support for the railroad was suppose to be a sign of the South’s backwardness and unwillingness to accept the advancement of technology. But I found this hard to accept. The movie began in 1852. During this period, the state of Louisiana was already expanding the railroad throughout the state. Nor was the South adverse to accepting technological advances, as long as its elite profited from it. If the region – especially the Mississippi Valley – was willing to use steamboats to ship their cotton and sugar to the North, why not railroads? One mode of transportation was just as good as the other. And Southern planters certainly had no qualms about using Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin to become the number one producer and exporter of cotton in the first place. So, this scene between Preston and the bank’s board members seemed a bit unreal to me from a historical point-of-view.
I have two other problems with “JEZEBEL” that I consider aesthetic. One of those problems featured the film’s production designs, supervised by Robert Fellows. I had no problems with the production designs for New Orleans’ French Quarter. I had a big problem with the production designs for Julie Marsden’s plantation, Halcyon. At least the exterior designs. In the scene that featured the arrival of Julie’s guests, Halcyon’s front lawn and the exterior designs for the house resembled a large house in a Southern suburb, instead of a plantation house. I did not expect Halcyon’s exteriors to resemble some clichéd Southern manor. But it seemed quite clear to me that Fellows, along with art director Robert M. Haas and the film’s art department did not put much thought in the plantation’s exterior design. Quite frankly, it almost resembled a facade constructed in front of a matte painting, on the Warner Brothers back lot.
I certainly did not have a problem with most of Orry-Kelly’s costumes for the film. But I had a problem with one in particular . . . namely the infamous Olympus Ball “red gown”:
I realize that in the movie, the gown had been originally created for one of New Orleans’ most infamous courtesans. And I did not have a problem with the gown’s full skirt, which accurately reflected the movie’s early 1850s setting. But that bodice . . . seriously? A strapless ballgown in 1852? I do not care if the gown was originally created for a prostitute. No such ballgown existed in the 1850s. The gown’s bodice struck me as pure late 1930s. The ballgown is practically schizophrenic as far as historical accuracy is concerned. And I am surprised that so many film critics and movie fans have failed to realize this.
Surprisingly, there is a good deal to admire in “JEZEBEL” . . . actually a lot. Many critics have compared it unfavorably to “GONE WITH THE WIND”, due to the latter being a historical drama. Somewhat. Well, aside from its use of the New Orleans 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic and the U.S. sectional conflict of the antebellum period in its narrative, “JEZEBEL” is not what I would describe as a historical drama. Which is why I find the movie’s comparison to “GONE WITH THE WIND” rather questionable. Besides, the movie is basically a character study of one Julie Marsden, an orphaned Louisiana belle who also happened to be the owner of a plantation called Halcyon. Screenwriters Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston structured the film’s narrative as a three-act play – which is not surprising considering its literary source. All three segments of the film – “The Dress”, “The Duel” and “The Fever” – served as different stages in Julie’s tenuous relationship with Pres Dillard. But the best I can say about “JEZEBEL” is that it is a well-balanced mixture of character study, melodrama and a touch of historical drama for good measure. I can honestly say that “JEZEBEL” was not some uneven mixture of genres.
There is something about “JEZEBEL” that I found rather odd. On one level, the whole movie seemed to be about how a willful and over-privileged woman finally received her comeuppance after causing so much chaos and even tragedy in the lives of those close to her. Yes, Julie Marsden was a selfish and rather childish woman who believed the worlds of others – especially Pres Dillard – should revolve around her. After all, it was her petulant reaction to Pres’ refusal to accompany her on a shopping trip that set their break-up in motion. But I must admit that I was surprised to find some aspect of the film’s narrative that questioned the 19th society that demanded Julie remained in her place, as a woman. Yes, she was selfish and childish. But she possessed a bold personality that seemed unfit for conforming to society’s rigid rules. In a way, I could not help but wonder if some of her attempts to do what she wanted had sprung from some kind of frustration at being expected to remaining below the glass ceiling. Surprisingly, one example of how the film had criticized mid-19th century Southern society was through the character, Preston Dillard. As I had pointed out earlier, “JEZEBEL” featured the usual “happy slaves” clichés in its portrayal of the African-American characters. But it also used Pres to criticize the South’s dependence on slavery. Pres denied more than once of being a follower of abolition. Yet, his criticism of slave labor, his respectful attitude toward slaves like Uncle Cato, his decision to live in the North and his support for technological advances in transportation and an improved sanitation system for New Orleans seemed to hint otherwise.
A better example of the film’s criticism of 19th century Southern society came from the film’s second act, “The Duel”. Yes, I felt contempt at Julie’s efforts to humiliate Pres and his new bride Amy by manipulating her former beau, the hot-headed Buck Cantrell, into goading them. And I also felt disgusted when her manipulations led to a duel between Buck and Pres’ younger brother, Theodore “Ted” Dillard. This proved to be especially ironic due to the close friendship between the pair. But what really disgusted me was not only did Julie eventually realized she had went too far and tried to prevent the duel; but that both Buck and Ted knew that Julie had manipulated them into that duel and her reason behind her action. Yet, these two morons had insisted upon carrying out the duel. For face. I was especially disgusted with Buck and his blind adherence to this “gentleman’s honor” nonsense. Buck and Ted’s insistence upon carrying out their duel, despite knowledge of Julie’s role in it, seemed to be a harsh criticism of a society that encouraged such duels. This is pretty rare for a Hollywood film made before the 1960s, let alone the 1930s.
Despite a few quibbles, I was very impressed by the production and art designs for “JEZEBEL”. Red ballgown aside, I thought Orry-Kelly did an exceptional job with the film’s costumes. The Australian-born designer’s costumes came very close to reflecting the fashions of the early 1850s – not only for women, but also for men. I was also impressed by the production and art designs that also did an excellent job of reflecting the film’s setting – 1852-1853 Louisiana. The exterior designs for the Halcyon plantation may have been a bust, but I cannot say for the other exterior and set designs. This was certainly the case for the exterior designs for the New Orleans French Quarter scenes, as seen in the image below:
I simply found them exquisite. This artistry was on full display, thanks to the movie’s long opening shot that introduced movie fans to New Orleans circa 1852. And we can thank both director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller for this memorable scene. And this was just the first. Another creative sequence from Wyler, Haller and the film’s art designers featured a montage that introduced movie audiences to the film’s third and final act – the Yellow Jack epidemic.
I did not have a problem with the film’s performances. In general. But as I had stated earlier, I found some of the performances for minor white planters and black slaves a bit over-the-top. One of those over-the-top performances came from Donald Crisp, of all people, who portrayed Dr. Livingstone – Pres Dillard’s mentor. I thought Crisp took the whole Southern gentleman cliche just a bit too far. I was also a bit troubled by Theresa Harris’ portrayal of Julie’s maid, Zette. It seemed a bit too cliched in my opinion and I wish that William Wyler had reined in her performance a bit. Harris had better luck portraying another maid in the 1941 period comedy, “THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS”. There was one more performance that failed to impress me and it came from Margaret Lindsay, who portrayed Pres’ Northern-born wife Amy. How can I say this? Would one consider a limp and underwhelming character like Amy as another literary trope? At least for a story set in the mid-19th century? I could say that Lindsay was a bad actress, but I find this hard to accept, considering her stellar performance in the 1940 melodrama, “THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES”.
Fortunately for “JEZEBEL”, it did feature some very solid performances. Eddie Anderson gave a pretty solid performance as Julie’s competent stable hand, Gros Bat. Matthew “Stymie” Beard struck me as equally solid as his young son, Ti Bat. Spring Byington was amusing as Julie’s slightly snobbish neighbor, Mrs. Kendrick. Margaret Early gave a lively performance as the former’s daughter, Stephanie Kendrick. Henry O’Neill was pretty solid as one of Julie’s guardians, General Theopholus Bogardus. But I did not find him particularly memorable. Lew Payton gave excellent support as Julie’s major domo, Uncle Cato. And Richard Cromwell really impressed me as Pres’ younger brother, the intelligent yet temperamental Ted Dillard. But there were two supporting performances that truly impressed me. One came from George Brent, who I believe gave one of the best performances of his screen career, as the uber-macho Buck Cantrell. One, his grasp of a Lower South accent really impressed me. The actor also managed to convey the glimmer of Buck’s intelligence behind his masculine posturing – something that made the rupture of his friendship with Ted Dillard rather tragic. The other impressive supporting performance came from Fay Bainter, who portrayed Julie’s other guardian, Aunt Belle Massey. Bainter did such an excellent job of conveying the character’s tiring efforts to make Julie conform to society’s rules, especially those for women. Bainter made Belle Massey’s struggles so apparent that when Julie’s manipulations led to the Buck-Ted duel, Bainter gave that infamous “Jezebel” speech with a superb performance that may have sealed her win for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
I have read a good number of reviews for “JEZEBEL”. And for the likes of me, I cannot understand why Henry Fonda’s portrayal of banker Preston “Pres” Dillard was dismissed as either wooden or weak. I find the contempt toward the character rather mind-boggling. I even came across an article in which the author could not decide which male character was this film’s Rhett Butler – Pres Dillard or Buck Cantrell. Was that why so many had dismissed Fonda’s character? Because he was no Rhett Butler? I hope not. Personally, I found Fonda’s performance spot on as the intelligent, yet beleaguered Pres, who finally decided that he had enough of Julie’s antics. Fonda’s Pres Dillard wooden? I beg to differ. Fonda did an excellent job of conveying Pres’ emotions throughout the film – whether it was his initial passion for Julie, a combination of confusion and exasperation in dealing with Julie’s childishness, his determination to save New Orleans’ citizens in dealing with a potential pandemic, any lingering physical attraction he might feel for Julie following his marriage, and his anger. Like his younger brother, Pres had a temper, but he controlled it through a very intimidating stare that left others unwilling to confront or challenge him. It is a pity that Fonda was never acknowledged with an acting nomination for his performance.
Bette Davis, on the other hand, more than deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the spoiled Julie Marsden. What can I say? She was superb. She would probably be the first to thank William Wyler for his direction of her performance. And perhaps the director deserved some credit for guiding her performance and eliminating some of her bad habits of exaggerated behavior. But Wyler could only do so much. The talent was there – within Davis. She recognized that she had a first-rate director on her hands and did everything she could to give a stellar performance as the bold, yet childish and vindictive Julie. And Davis knocked it out of the ballpark with some of the most subtle and skillful acting of her career.
I realized that I have not discussed the movie’s most famous scene – namely the Olympus Ball. I can see why so many critics and moviegoers were impressed by it. The film’s production manager had scheduled one day for Wyler to shoot it. The director shot it in five days and created a cinematic masterpiece. Each moment was exquisitely detailed – from Julie and Pres’ arrival, the other guests’ reaction to Julie’s dress, Pres’ insistence that the band begin playing, the dance, the manner in which the other guests slowly pulled away from couple . . . I could go on. But what really made this scene for me were Davis and Fonda’s performances. Between Davis expressing Julie’s growing unease and humiliation and Fonda conveying Pres’ intimidation of everyone in the room, it was easy for me to see why these two, along with Wyler, became Hollywood icons.
I cannot deny that “JEZEBEL” had its problems – including some of its production designs, one particular costume, and the inclusion of Southern character stereotypes – especially African-American slaves. But . . . I cannot deny that when push comes to shove, “JEZEBEL” is a well-written melodrama and a character study of a complex woman. The movie greatly benefited from a pretty damn good script written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston; an excellent cast led by Oscar winner Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; and superb direction from the likes of William Wyler. I never understood why “JEZEBEL” had to exist within the shadows of “GONE WITH THE WIND”. It is more than capable of standing on its own merits.