Sunday, April 18, 2021

Gone With the Bayou

Some months back, TCM ran a one-night spotlight on some of the films of actress Yvonne De Carlo. One that I hadn't seen before is Band of Angels, so I DVRed it and recently watched it to do a post on here.

Yvonne De Carlo plays Amantha Starr, daughter of the owner of a plantation in 1850s Kentucky (however, the opening act has Amantha as a child). Mom died years ago, and Dad has doted on Amantha ever since, mortgaging the plantation to send Amantha to a good boarding school up in Cincinnati where she meets northerners like Ethan Sears (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) who are firmly opposed to slavery.

Bad news comes when Amantha learns that her father has fallen ill; she can't get home soon enough and Dad is quite dead. It's at Dad's burial that Amantha learns about Dad's having mortgaged the farm. But worse, she learns that Dad had consorted with some of the slaves, and that Amantha is the daughter of one of the slaves. Now, you'd think a doting Dad would have provided for Amantha in his will, at least by setting her free, or doing it much earlier in her life. But somehow Dad never got around to it, and Amantha is somehow still technically a slave. With that giant plot hole, the movie immediately began to go off the rails for me.

As a black person who could pass for white, Amantha can obviously command a much higher price at the slave auction, and Rhett Butler shows up to buy her for the princely sum of $5000. OK, it's not Rhett Butler, but you can be forgiven for comparing Band of Angels to Gone With the Wind. It is Clark Gable, 20 years older and playing a character named Hamish Bond. Hamish takes Amantha to New Orleans, where he makes her his new mistress.

I say "new mistress" because Hamish apparently had a previous slave mistress. He's also got a slave who serves as his factotum, Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier). Hamish had Rau-Ru educated at great personal risk, since black slaves weren't supposed to be educated as they might get ideas above their station. Indeed, Rau-Ru resents Hamish even more than if he hadn't gotten an education and other "good" treatment from Hamish. After all, Rau-Ru is still a slave.

As the movie opened in the early 1850s and Amantha was just a girl then, you know what's coming up in American history. One of Hamish's friends from his days sailing the oceans brings up the secession of Louisiana, although it's not until after Hamish decamps from New Orleans to a plantation upriver that the attack of Fort Sumter occurs and the Civil War begins in earnest.

The North wins the Civil War, of course, and as they're subjugating Louisiana all of the plantation owners decide to burn their cotton crops so as not to give the North anything useful. This even though it's against martial law and makes Hamish and the other plantation owners outlaws. There's also a subplot about another of the owners, Charles de Marigny (Patric Knowles), trying to put the moves on Amantha.

Band of Angels is one big mess. It's an interesting mess, mind you, but a mess nonetheless. It veers from one plot point to another, having some wildly implausible character motivations. There's also all the tropes that Hollywood had in those days of the Romantic South, as well as an impossible ending. So while I didn't hate Band of Angels, I certainly didn't love it either.

Band of Angels is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, should you wish to watch for yourself.

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