Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Howards of Virginia (1940)

Dir. Frank Lloyd
Starring: Cary Grant, Martha Scott, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Marshal

The Howards of Virginia is a tale of class conflict and blinkered attitudes in the years running up to American independence. It is a family saga showing how some prosper and some fall. It also, despite its starry cast, feels like an amateur theatrical production.

Matt Howard (Cary Grant) is a rough outdoorsman from the backwoods of Virginia. Left fatherless at an early age, he hs to struggle through on his own. Well not quite on his own: his best friend is looking after him. Not too shabby when that best friend is the boyish Thomas Jefferson (Richard Carlson). Jefferson fixes him up with an education, some new clothes, even an estate up in the hills and persuades him to stick around Virginia rather than heading for the frontier country of Ohio. This is how he meets the Peytons, the grandest of the Williamsburg aristocracy. Head of the family, Fleetwood (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) is a pompous old snob; younger brother Roger (Alan Marshall) is a gad-about-town); sister Mary (Martha Scott) is a honey. It is discovered that Matt once worked his own land – with his own hands! Scandal ensues! Yet Matt and Jane marry and retreat to his home in the Shenandoah Valley where they raise a family. Jefferson intervenes, again, and encourages Matt to stand for the House of Burgesses. Confronted with the political situation between England and the American colonies Matt is radicalised into fighting for independence; Fleetwood opposes any break with the king.

The whole thing is as one-dimensional as many of the set backdrops. Cary Grant gives an awful performance; his Matt Howard talks loudly and fast the entire time as though he were high on cocaine. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, the esteemed character actor, sneers and scowls and stomps about. Martha Scott floats around and simpers. Matt’s two sons are paragons of perfection, Roger vanishes from the story half-way through, and Jefferson is the real hero. Those who support independence are energised and heroic; those who oppose it venal snobs.

Fauntleroy did not understand the concept of the 'toga party'

In many ways the first half of the film held the nucleus of a good story in it. Matt struggles to overcome the prejudices of the Peytons and Jane struggles to come to life in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Here life is hard, debts are paid in kind, and the locals have none of the fancy graces she is used to. Surviving in these circumstances, not least with a lame son, and dealing with her disapproving family could – if handled better – have made an involving plot. But all we get is a few awkward moments, an argument, and then everything is put right by a montage. By the montage’s end Matt’s log house has been transformed into a grand estate and Jane is once again able to act the lady of the manor. Phew – problem solved. The second half of the film is bogged down by the significance of the struggle for independence. There follows another montage: stirring speeches, a metaphorical sea of royal proclamations, messengers galloping through the forests and then we are into the war. You need to know your American history here. There are gasps when it is learnt that “the hot-heads up in Boston” have tipped a load of tea into the harbour. It is never explained why they have done this.

The war itself must rate as perhaps the dullest dramatization of conflict ever. There is one chase where Matt is shot off his horse. The remainder is him shivering in a wooden hut while the camp dreams of frozen potatoes. He and his companions do not play any part in the victory. One minute the British are in Williamsburg, the next they are bottled up at Yorktown waiting for the end. Matt and his troops march south, but the film ends before the final battle.

There is a lesson about toleration in there somewhere. Even Matt Howard is not immune to intolerance. He is happy for his new wife to join him in the hills but he is hostile to visiting Williamsburg. He also slights his firstborn son, Peyton, because his limp reminds him of Fleetwood. It is disgraceful the way he greets his other two children and ignore Peyton; of course Peyton later comes to be the apple of his eye. The boy idolises his father, though heaven knows why. Matt realises that as the product of two different cultures Peyton has taken the best of each – a parallel with the new generation of Americans presumably. But the portrayal is heavy handed and clumsy. The entire thing is less morality play and more like a sub-par church hall drama society. It is not one I would urge people to watch.

What have I learnt about Virginia?
The film does give a good picture of Virginia society in the later 18th century however. The ‘Tidewater’ area around Williamsburg is home to the estates of wealthy plantation landowners. Their fields are worked by slaves and they spend their days dallying in drinking houses and their evenings socialising at balls. They are snobbish, imperious and – in the case of Fleetwood – loyal to His Majesty. Up in the hills there is a different sort of society. Here the men are free but barely scratch a living from their crops, from hunting and from smuggling. It is a poorer, more lawless area and the Tidewater aristocracy look down upon them as ill-educated and ill-mannered yokels.

Virginia had a House of Burgesses to which members were democratically elected. This provides the forum for debates about Virginia’s relationship with the crown – or it did until the governor shut it down anyway. During the War of Independence Virginia raised a militia; the then-governor Thomas Jefferson sent it away on campaign, leaving the area defenceless. All the same, the vicissitudes of war took a terrible toll on the great landowners.

Can we go there?
There are two main settings in this film, both of them in Virginia. It is a clash between the wealthy Tidewater aristocracy of Williamsburg and the rural backwoods boys of the Shenandoah Valley.

In fact, despite the fact that most of the film was clearly shot on set there are a few recognisable images of Colonial Williamsburg (as it is known) in there: the Raleigh Tavern, the Governor’s Palace, and the Capitol. All were recosntructed in the early 1930s. The Fleetwood estate of Elm Hill never existed however; the estate of Carter’s Grove was used. The plantation was once a part of Colonial Willamsburg but was sold off in 2007; its owner later went bankrupt and the estate is now held by a trustee.

Matt’s background lies in Albemarle County. Thomas Jefferson’s estate of Monticello still exists in Albermarle, just outside Charlottesville. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I can well recommend a tour. It is stated that Matt’s estate was further up the Shenandoah Valley. That valley is now a National Park.

Overall Rating: 1/5

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