Gone With The Wind

Dir: Victor Fleming, 1939. Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel. Classics.
Gone With The Wind

For 40 years, until of the era of the blockbuster (beginning with Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and perhaps The Sound Of Music and The Godfather before them), Gone With The Wind was the ultimate blockbuster. Other films may have passed it in overall box office, but that’s because ticket prices have risen. No film had more people go see it in its day than Gone With The Wind. And yes, it’s a melodramatic soap opera with an eerie romantic schoolgirl crush on the Old South, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is impeccably crafted with one of the most stunning performances by an actress in film history.

Based on Margaret Mitchell’s massive Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the fall of the antebellum American South, Gone With The Wind follows the young Southern belle, Sacrlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), through her many marriages, before, during, and after the Civil War. The dashing and worldly Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is the man for her, but like any spoiled creature, she wants what she can’t have. The stiff, but proud Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is the object of her near obsession, but he is engaged to her kindly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).

1939 was the day when the producer was king, so after years of effort, most of the credit for getting Gone With The Wind to the screen with such painstaking craft deservingly goes to mega-producer David O. Selznick. The film's original director, George Cukor, was fired a few weeks into production when Selznick decided his vision wasn’t up to snuff. Gable’s bud, director Victor Fleming, took over and finished the film (though Sam Wood also did some time in the hot seat when Fleming went down). To work on Gone With The Wind, Fleming had to leave The Wizard of Oz early and is credited as the director on both films.

The film was shot in vibrant colors by journeyman cinematographer Ernest Haller (Jezebel, Rebel Without A Cause). Its believable looking Southern locations were actually a number of Hollywood back lots often with matte backgrounds. The special effects, most memorably the Burning Of Atlanta, were way ahead of their time. And, of course, Max Steiner’s memorably lush score still has the ability to give goose bumps.

The cast is top notch, even when their roles can come off as cartoony. For Clark Gable, Rhett Butler is the role he was born for. Rhett represents the accumulation of the rogue charm Gable had been mastering for the last decade. British matinee star Leslie Howard is perfect as the do-gooder, Ashley, though he never fully embraces the Southern accent and sometimes seems like he would be more comfortable reading sonnets in a London pub than running a Georgia plantation. (He would die just a few years later working for the British government when his plane was shot down by German bombers). For Olivia de Havilland, fine as Melanie, it was just a warm-up for her major roles to come (The Dark Mirror, The Heiress, etc.), as she would prove to be one of the more interesting actresses of the next decade and a half.

After a highly publicized search for the actress to play Scarlett, where most major actresses in Hollywood tested and were considered (including Barbara Stanwick, Katharine Hepburn, and most seriously Bette Davis), Paulette Goddard almost got the role until in walked the young British beauty Vivien Leigh, fresh off becoming Miss Laurence Olivier, after playing Ophelia to his Hamlet at the Old Vic, and co-starring in Fire Over England with him. She did not disappoint. Her mesmerizing performance is one for the ages. She takes Scarlett on a massive character arc, going from a young naive girl to a strong and powerful woman of power. Scarlett is forced to hold the world around her together as war and its aftermath invades her life. Leigh would continue to work in Hollywood and find some acclaim on the stage, but health and personal problems would slow her career, though in the early '50s she would give one more iconic performance as Blanche DuBois opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The racial politics of Gone With The Wind can be a touchy matter; though not as blatantly ugly as the glorification of the KKK that Birth Of A Nation gave us, still the issues of the Civil War and the treatment of slaves are glossed over with a fairly groovy Hollywood vibe. Gone With The Wind’s black characters can be seen as demeaning and offensive, though actually, the house slave, Mammy (played well by Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for it) is actually one of the more interesting characters in the film. Though the slaves may touch on stereotypes (they are portrayed as happy to be slaves and fiercely loyal to their owners), McDaniel brings a complicated psychology to what, on paper, was probably a caricature. Her levels of anger, pride, and disappointment ring through, while the younger Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) can come off as even more cringy. Luckily the poor whites also are treated as trash in the film, and the Yankees even worse. No matter what, all the characters stay true to the Southern wide eyes of Scarlet they are seen through.

Even as tastes change, Gone With The Wind has been the standard bearer for big epic entertainment since 1939 (a year later Citizen Kane would up the ante on what magic could be created for the screen and then Italian Neo Realism would show that bigger didn’t mean better). Gone With The Wind may be a soapy piece of pulp all dressed up in grown-up clothes, but arguably, only a few films since have had the massive worldwide cultural impact. These days films open up around the world on the same day, and are treated like important monuments. Good or bad, Gone With The Wind helped establish that Hollywood brand and the film's legacy was formed organically, the old fashioned way, though with a lot of nudging from Selznick.

____________________________

Gone With The Wind won 9 Oscars: Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Director, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and an Honorary Award to William Cameron Menzies for achievement in use of color.

Gone With The Wind was nominated for an additional 5 Oscars: Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Special Effects.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 8, 2011 3:03pm
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