Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
A mammoth, audacious, uncomfortable hybrid of fifty or more disparate elements that by every measure of artistic logic absolutely should not work, Gone with the Wind is in some ways a mystery. Its appeal is not. It remains the most popular film ever made because it’s as straightforward and freewheeling with its constant pleasures as filmed entertainment gets. Two things are certain: that every bit of the final impact this murky mess of ideas has is fully deliberate and by design, and that for all the hands involved in building it and all the false starts and rewrites and hirings and firings, it’s a masterpiece — a cultural moment to savor in all its weepy melodramatics and gargantuan production values that continues to prove hypnotic and rousing over seven decades after its release, the absolute defining peak of Hollywood cinema. Perhaps more importantly, it’s still one of the most fun movies ever made, and manages to rivet and galvanize for the entirety of its quite insane 230-minute running time. How do you even address something of this size? The experience is to watch it, be absorbed in and disgusted by it and roll your eyes and cry at it and experience that torrent of emotions and share in the world-shaking scale of it all. Make time for it. Then you’ll see how speechless you’re rendered, whether you love or hate it, but the way to tackle Gone with the Wind in succinct form — really, it’d take a book, and has done so many times over — is through its people, the owners of the fingers in the pie.
We’ll come to the craziness of that controversial directorial credit, “directed by Victor Fleming” seemingly as tongue-in-cheek a statement as if it listed Alan Smithee, but before even addressing that it’s clear enough that the real author of this film, disputed by no one in any place or time, is David O. Selznick, the nutso Phil Spector of Hollywood, the man who legendarily blustered about Alfred Hitchcock’s “jigsaw cutting” when Hitchcock went to work for him a year after this, the man who’d bombastically shove Alida Valli and Jennifer Jones into all manner of projects with Pygmalion-like intensity, the man who ushered movies as disparate as King Kong and Portrait of Jennie into existence, and the man who spent years of his life living, breathing, and nearly dying for Gone with the Wind, its every detail barked out and worried through and scrutinized by Selznick on a thousand Benzedrine-fueled late nights. It’s disingenuous to deny this is his movie, his blood-and-guts projection of what he felt the people wanted on their cinema screens. Lucky for him, he was right, because if he hadn’t been his life would have been over.
There wouldn’t, of course, be a film without Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which is essentially a soaper but one stuffed with unforgettable characters and a romantically preposterous vision of sweeping history — the beginning really of the literary phenomenon of the book so popular that every detail of the film adaptation would be scrutinized and debated through gritted teeth. Gone with the Wind has the time, of course, to be many things: a Civil War epic, a coming-of-age story of an arrogant and spoiled young woman at whose finally victorious cynicism the film admirably never once flinches, and a tragic romance of surprising darkness and breathtaking scope — it’s soap opera in the truest, broadest sense, not merely awash in melodramatics but wallowing in them from nearly the first scene to the last. Yet it’s also a work of feverish emotion and populism. Forget the sometimes clumsy backdrop of Old South nostalgia, inherited from Mitchell, for just a moment and consider the real structure and nature of the story being masterfully told here — it’s everything in the right quantity and capacity, the love and action and mild humor and bottomless sorrow. Unfussy, linear and deeply involving, it appeals to something basic and deep in us, the need to hear a rip-roarer of a story with plenty of flourishes and a big rousing finish. It speaks loudly.
Of course, we needn’t repeat the story of the legendary casting call for a Scarlett O’Hara, that calculating and strong figure at the center of Mitchell’s novel, the classicist Rich Girl whose hellish night of travel and survival then subsequent poverty at the end of the war turns her into an enterprising and independent businesswoman and property owner. Years were spent searching for the perfect candidate, and unknown-but-not-for-long Vivien Leigh was finally the winner, and it seems today as if no one else could have possibly played her. Leigh was an over-the-top, often mediocre actress but she was born for this part, perhaps because she only was believable within the unhinged outsize personality she held in real life. She wrecked other films and would have wrecked even more (Rebecca particularly) had she managed to secure all the parts husband Laurence Olivier tried to strong-arm her into. But no matter. In Gone with the Wind, she’s a screaming and winking giantess, kitschy and spiteful yet utterly compelling for every second of an elaborately spun tale that virtually belongs to her character. The central conflict, underneath the one that pits North and South against one another, is in regard to Scarlett’s desperate wanting of neighborhood well-to-do Ashley Wilkes and constant shooing away of dubious playboy Rhett Butler. It’s astounding that such a vibrant and relentlessly impatient young woman would want anything to do with such a crashing bore as Ashley. The only man who even begins to compare to Scarlett’s zest for life and resourcefulness is, of course, Rhett, played with charming reluctance and galling abandon by Clark Gable.
In contrast to Leigh, Gable is a more sophisticated actor than Gone with the Wind lets on. (For evidence of this, start with San Francisco and It Happened One Night, two magnificent earlier studio projects he worked on, rather than the Oscar-winning Mutiny on the Bounty in which he’s terribly wasted.) Though he has some complex scenes in the second half, his narrative purpose is in large part to look pretty and conniving, to exude faux-gentlemanly confidence, and occasionally set off an outburst. The pair certainly deserves one another; how astonishing is it that the highest-grossing American film ever made throws two such traditionally unlikable characters together as the romantic leads? Rhett is a contradictory, duplicitous figure who trades on a cowboy image of badassery and apathetic machismo — he’s the man you want to be if there’s a leering rapist deep inside you waiting to come out. Yet Gable does humanize him, and eventually this helps save the film from the lurching turnaround in Mitchell’s characterization of Rhett — that the cold-hearted snake who can woo Scarlett from her lofty nice-guy dreams will ultimately become a warm and great father, a war hero (for the wrong side, of course), and the sort of man who will wise up and stop doling out and taking abuse. Because he has so much less to work with than Leigh but makes just as much out of it, Gable’s may be the finest performance of the film.
The leads overshadow everything, but Selznick and company put together a superb stable of supporting players to keep the back end of the film healthy enough to withstand its outlandish running time nicely. Leslie Howard’s Ashley is unfortunately bland beyond belief, though that’s inherent to the material and really necessary to make the central love triangle work; Howard’s flowery language and hand-on-heart sincerity about everything bear all the marks of romance-novel cliché that Mitchell did so well to avoid elsewhere, yet there’s some symbolic grace to Scarlett’s adolescent fantasy being for a man who becomes as dull as a doorknob, who in her ideal scenario would so readily and unquestioningly accept her deceptions and manipulations without a second thought, thus (though she fails to accept it until the last five minutes) would be useless to her. Howard does his best and comes away unscathed, but he was reportedly embarrassed by the film. Olivia de Havilland, however, is phenomenally good as his long-suffering wife, Melanie — her benignly sweet nature in the face of insult and abuse from Scarlett, not to mention seemingly constant adversity, renders her the perfect portrait of a nice and placid individual who gets shoved under the oncoming wagon of dominant personalities like Scarlett and Rhett. Only fair, then, that her death provides the narrative’s final revelation.
Because its depiction of slavery seems now such a damaging catalog of Anti-Tom offensiveness, it’s startling today to consider that in its day, Gone with the Wind was considered racially progressive — not only did Selznick specifically seek out the approval of the NAACP before screening the film (an effort hoodwinked by the theater in Atlanta where the film premiered, which refused to provide seats to the black actors and actresses in the film; Gable refused to attend until Hattie McDaniel talked him into it), it was a watershed moment for black Hollywood for the mainstream exposure it provided to a host of gifted performers who sadly would in many cases never work on such a large scale again. It’s easy to bristle at the portrayal of the slave characters, but give Gone with the Wind at least a few points for not glossing over the matter altogether or dehumanizing its black characters entirely.
Scarlett’s wet nurse Mammy might be a racial caricature, but she’s also a three-dimensional character, and McDaniel deserved her Oscar completely, especially because of the deftly intelligent way she introduces and defines Mammy and Scarlett’s deeply-rooted but volatile relationship and for the way she handles all of the marble-mouthed exposition the script saddles her with. In one scene, she trails de Havilland up the stairs for what seems like an eternity describing the events of the last few weeks in relentless detail, things that we should by all rights have seen happening, but she relates them so well it doesn’t matter. The greater injustice is Butterfly McQueen, a brilliant scholar in real life and a deserved hero in black culture, who’s stuck with the oafish Prissy character; McQueen nevertheless approaches the part with gusto and makes all of her scenes surprisingly believable and meaningful, refusing to degrade Prissy into a mere comic sideshow. Years later, McQueen would concede she was pleased to have been a part of Gone with the Wind after years of not wanting to think about it — one hopes she was immensely proud of her small but brilliant performance.
Prissy figures in the film’s most remarkable scene, the brief but almost unbearably gorgeous shadowy “birthing” sequence in which Scarlett alone must deliver Melanie’s child. That sequence was directed by George Cukor, which brings us to the matter of directorial crediting, a complicated problem in this film’s case. Lots of studio pictures had somewhat anonymous “contract” directors, and Gone with the Wind is hardly the most egregious example of a misleading authorship, not that anyone denies Selznick is the true author anyway. The Wizard of Oz (coincidentally also credited to Victor Fleming, even more ridiculously) had at least five directors, and Spartacus is a notorious instance because it’s credited to one of cinema’s brightest lights, Stanley Kubrick, and gave him full control over his output for the rest of his career, but it was originated and prepared by Anthony Mann, fired weeks into production. Cukor was assigned to Gone with the Wind and seemed the perfect fit, for his intimate understanding of the characterizations and performers (he continued to coach de Havilland and Leigh after he was taken off the project) and competence with respect to large films, but he sparred with Selznick and was fired, replaced by crackerjack studio workhorse Fleming, known for quick and dirty projects like Test Pilot and Treasure Island. He directed about half of the material seen in the film, a good deal of it in the second half, but during a bout of exhaustion was temporarily replaced by Sam Wood — evidently, the individual stamp of a director was of far less importance than simply getting the job done. The miracle is how unstrained and seamless the result is. The film’s visual style is so breathtaking and surprisingly eccentric you’d never suspect it had such a contentious directorial history.
The same goes for the screenplay, credited to the late Sidney Howard who died prior to the film’s release, but in fact neverendingly revised and rewritten at Selznick’s direction by seemingly the entire population of southern California, somehow or another coming up with a piece of storytelling that ebbs and flows with the expert rhythm of a seasoned screenwriter and holds steadfastly to its themes in all the ways that so many Hollywood scripts fail to with half this many people attached to them. The last scene, although inherited from the novel, is brilliant enough to justify the slightly weak moments throughout, as it ingeniously pulls together a parallel strand that runs through the entire film, that of the importance of land and of the Tara plantation itself to Scarlett’s life and future, and suddenly re-positions it as the overriding theme of all that’s happened. Thus the ending somehow restructures the film itself, without any sort of awkward gimmickry, and draws neat parallels to two earlier scenes while leaving us tearful, breathless, and, well, satisfied.
There is then, of course, Max Steiner, the man who arguably invented the film score as we know it. Between this movie and King Kong you witness something approximating the birth of movie music as a successful complement to emotion — there’s too much of it here, of course, as like so many big Hollywood pictures of the late ’30s it feels a need to constantly assert its bombast by playing music under dialogue-heavy scenes meant to simply establish character, but once the war starts and the films gets rolling, the music — enormous, pounding, triumphant, sorrowful — means everything to it. Steiner’s theme is the best and most well-matched of the major cinema “overtures” in the epic Hollywood productions; he brandishes and belabors it carefully, at specific intervals, so that the full catharsis is only experienced at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the film, by which time it’s so evocative it could in and of itself produce the tearful melancholy the film’s so ardently striving for. Gone with the Wind could maybe have been successful without Steiner, but he made everyone else’s job far easier.
It’s no slur on Gone with the Wind to say that its first half is stronger than its second. In a sense, it’s Shakespearean in plot structure — the climax occurs midway through and the back half is entirely fallout from that, the epic-scale but dramatically modest decline and downfall of Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship, only a sideline in the first two hours. Though it remains monstrously entertaining for all of the third act and finale, it’s not at all unfair to state that the thrills and spectacle — the absolute spectacle — occur in the earlier portions. No matter how many individuals were behind the camera, the second hour is one of the best and most bravura pieces of cinema ever shot in any context: the burning of Atlanta, the barren battlefields, the dramatic birthing, the terrifying journey across Georgia with a newborn in tow, the rediscovery of a now-hellishly bleak Twelve Oaks and Tara, and the girl who will “never be hungry again.” Everything after this is sort of like fallout from some great romantic experience, which is part of its appeal; its handling of low-key affairs that gradually transform a heart and mind, though not in the ways a traditional narrative might have it, manage to contextualize the historical (or at least, purportedly historical) content as a prologue to the smaller story at its core.
If you have trouble parsing out exactly how and why Gone with the wind attained and continues to hold its status, it’s a good idea to step back for just a moment and look at what it really truly is. There’s nothing at all weak or visually boring about the great black & white films of the late ’30s and early ’40s, but in an era when Technicolor was a new technology — only a handful of cameras existed to use the process, all of them in service on this film — to see William Cameron Menzies’ outstanding, stunningly beautiful filtered color designs on this film in service of such a broad and populist and big story must have been an unforgettable experience. You can liken it to seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on release, some shared cultural moment that can finally have such immense personal impact it can shake you to the core. And it’s all thanks to David O. Selznick, the chief architect and artist of the film. But it wouldn’t be Gone with the Wind without Menzies, without Leigh and de Havilland, without Sidney Howard, without Margaret Mitchell, without Butterfly McQueen and Clark Gable or Max Steiner and George Cukor — is there a better illustration of film as a collaborative artform? Selznick could bark orders and fashion the people around him the way he wanted, but he was nothing without those people. And without them, we’d be denied one of the capital-E Experiences of being at the movies, and really of being alive in this past century.