1930s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Review, Victor Fleming, War

Gone with the Wind

Now…this is a MOVIE. Huge, sentimental, melodramatic, earnest, detailed, ambitious, impressive, and eager to entertain across four brisk hours, David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind has dominated the popular cinematic consciousness over the past few decades for a reason. A few reasons, really. Made at the height of Selznick’s professional and creative powers, after he had gone independent from RKO and before his obsessive tinkering and control over the people he hired became a detriment, Gone with the Wind was Selznick’s biggest, brashest attempt to entertain the masses, hooking onto a popular book and throwing every cinematic tool he had at it until it became the biggest movie of all time.

I had an idea of what the film was about as I watched it, boiling it down to nostalgia, but as it ended, I realized it was probably dreams. There are certain dreamlike qualities to the storytelling, the opening being like a happy dream of a child, the second being the nightmare of a young woman, and the final part being an effort to reach for the dream that she could only half-remember when awake. You could probably boil it down to a few other words as well (marriage, fidelity, conflict, etc.), but I think the overall point is dreams. Looking at the film through that lens the film gains a certain ironic quality that, I’m pretty sure, Selznick, Victor Fleming, Sidney Howard, nor Margaret Mitchell actually intended. It just kind of developed accidentally.

There’s an earnestness to the film’s portrayal of the Old South evident from its opening text that talks about the time and place as the last vestige of Knights and Chivalry. However, the “knights” we see are almost all effeminate dandies with little but big talk to back their assertions that they are much better fighters than the Yankees that they’re spoiling to fight (the two exceptions are our two male leads). The “chivalry” is these men dropping their woman at a glance from Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) just to jockey over which one of them will get her dessert. Essentially, these opening moments, the first half hour or so of the film, feel like the dream of a woman child where everything is perfect except for one detail: the man she thinks she loves, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), doesn’t love her and wants to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Ashley and Melanie are the two purest individuals in the film, especially Melanie. Ashley is a good, resolute man who has his head on right, especially regarding the South’s chances in the upcoming war (he’s not aching for it like the younger suiters), and Melanie is so pure and good that she can’t ever see Scarlett as the conniving, selfish, and manipulative spoiled rich girl that she really is.

O’Hara, daughter of an Irish immigrant played by my favorite character actor of the era, Thomas Mitchell (who is kind of wasted in the relatively small role, to be honest), is really a waste of a human being at the beginning. I read her as being at least partially representative of the Old South in the narrative, and if that’s true, then the Old South was a silly, unserious, uncaring, and manipulative. Her only saving graces are that she’s pretty (Vivien Leigh was very pretty) and she is the eldest daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. One of the other bits of irony is how the film deals with slavery. It doesn’t deal with it much, and it’s really a minor point in the film, but slavery is only ever questioned directly once in the film (late in it) but there are a couple of small instances of people, especially the wealthy, older women of the social circle balking at the idea of a charity auction for dancing at a ball might be like slavery. The focus of this film is simply not slavery, but it’s another small piece of evidence that there’s an ironic effect in how the film is put together, and I really don’t think Selznick, noted big-hearted lover of melodrama, really realized was there.

Anyway, the core of the film is O’Hara’s love of Ashley going completely unrequited while the visitor from Charleston, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a noted runner of the Union blockade during the war who builds up a huge fortune doing it, falls in love with the woman who’s just like him. This plays out against the grand backdrop of the American Civil War. The conflicts of the war itself are never the focus, with the first two years playing out quickly before things turn at the news of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg where anxiety begins to build in the hearts and minds of the planter class of the Old South and their livelihoods, marked over the first two years of the war by some limitation on goods but not a real degradation of their stations, actually do begin to falter. As General William Tecumseh Sherman comes closer, news comes through Ashley on a visit that his men are barefoot and losing, and panic begins to set it, but O’Hara can’t leave Atlanta to run back home to the plantation of Tara because Melanie is pregnant and can’t move without endangering her own life.

O’Hara’s growth as a person is most evident here where she has to go from completely relying on the few men left in her life, namely Dr. Meade (Harry Davenport), and rely on herself. Melanie goes into labor as the Confederate troops are beginning to pull out in the face of Sherman’s march, and Dr. Meade simply cannot abandon the hundreds and thousands of injured Confederate troops to help with a delivery, so O’Hara with her house servant Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), must do it herself. This leads to recruiting the help of Butler who’s in town with his preferred company (prostitutes, but the film can never say it because of the Hays Office), who manages to get the group of women out of town through fire, aggressive scavengers, and special effects. They get back to Tara, they see the damage left by the war on their precious home, Butler runs off to join the army after protesting his love to Scarlett, and Scarlett swears to never go hungry again. Intermission.

The second half of the film focuses mainly on Reconstruction and Scarlett’s attempts to reclaim the life she had before the war (the war that all of the chivalrous knights who are now dead were demanding, by the way). She’s met with obstacles from the state of the land to the new governing bodies demanding large sums of money in taxes to the fact that the one man she knows who could help her, Butler, is in prison as a prisoner of war and has no money. Scarlett makes a rash move and marries the beau of her younger sister, Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), who can cover the cost with the proceeds from his new shop in Atlanta. She pushes him around in the marriage, does whatever she needs to in order to survive (including doing business with Union officials), and forces Frank to buy a lumber mill that she heedlessly fills with convicts as workers. Ashley, having been freed from a Union prisoner of war camp, comes in on the deal (because Scarlett wants to keep him close, of course) and offers up the closest the film has to a direct rebuke of slavery by equating the use of the prisoners with the use of slaves. Scarlett dismisses that concern because her family treated slaves pretty well while not caring at all that she’s treating these prisoners terribly because Scarlett is, through and through, an awful person.

Her reckless disregard for her station leads her into a dangerous situation where she’s attacked on the road outside a shanty town, which leads the men in her social circle in Atlanta to lead a raid against the town, burning it down. Once again, these chivalrous knights are thick-headed and prone to outrageous violence at the slightest of pretexts. I am pretty sure that everyone involved with the production saw the act as admirable if misguided, but I find it hard to read the film that way. This, however, leads to Frank’s death (her second state as widower, since I’ve completely skipped over her first marriage which lasts a grand total of about three minutes of screentime), and her freedom to marry Rhett at long last.

This final section of the film, about the last hour, is where it becomes most evident that the film is really about trying to cling onto dreams. Scarlett and Rhett are perfect for each other, and there’s obviously great love between them. However Scarlett simply will not let go of her love for Ashley despite his obvious devotion to Melanie. He provides Scarlett with what could easily be described as friendly gestures because he’s simply a good man who does have affection for the pretty young woman throwing herself at him, but it’s obvious that he’s devoted to Melanie no matter how he frames it. Scarlett simply won’t let go, and despite Rhett throwing his entire fortune at her to make her happy, she won’t accept that happiness because it’s not the dream she had before the war.

What’s kind of amazing about the film is that it never drags. It is four hours long, and it simply keeps moving with events, but those events are tightly intertwined with our main character’s story. This film becomes a bit more random if Scarlett doesn’t somehow represent the Old South because her journey mirrors that of the South from the Antebellum period through the war and into Reconstruction, ultimately losing the dream she had when she realizes its not real and what she could have when she lost herself in her dream. Again, I don’t think anyone involved intentionally put this stuff in, the film is simply too earnestly presented in every facet of its cinematic storytelling to convince me of that underlying irony, but the elements are there nonetheless.

Gone with the Wind is a huge melodrama that is played to the hilt by everyone involved. Leigh throws herself into Scarlett with complete abandon, playing her big emotions big but providing enough small shows of inner life throughout the film to give Scarlett a deeper life. Gable is a cynical counterpoint to so much that goes on all around him, especially in comparison to Leslie Howard’s take on Ashley, and he ends up being the voice of reason as the South begs itself into a war that destroys it. de Havilland probably gives the best performance in the film as Melanie, containing eternal suffering and love through all of the trials and tribulations the two families from rural Georgia face. Hattie McDaniel is mostly a fun presence through the film in the supporting role of Mammy, but she has some very nice moments late in the film where she has to deliver a lot of expository dialogue through tears quite effectively.

This irony of the film’s production is that while it’s held up now as a grand example of Old Hollywood, it’s actually an independent production. MGM helped finance some of it, but it was driven by David O. Selznick’s money and energies outside of the studio system. This was atypical of how movies were made at the time in general which operated in surprisingly tight management systems on a mentality along the lines of an assembly line. Victor Fleming is the credited director, but he’s one of three who seriously worked on the film and it’s obvious that Selznick was the creative force behind the film, and this is his greatest achievement as a creative producer. Gone with the Wind is a grand adventure and melodrama, and it still entertains eighty years later.

Rating: 4/4

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2 thoughts on “Gone with the Wind”

  1. Yeah, talk about a palate cleanser after Ralph Bakshi bullshit. THIS is a Best Picture. And it’s the best when surrounded by an embarrassment of riches in 1939. What a year….Dark Victory, Goodby, Mr. Chips, Love Affair (which will be remade as An Affair to Remember but is still the same story), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, STAGECOACH, The Wizard of freaking Oz and Wuthering Heights with Lawrence Oliver.

    Stunning year for film.

    In a way, this is a fascinating look at a villainous protagonist. Scarlett isn’t Thanos, though she is also someone who should be given power, but she’s utterly selfish until the last moments of the film. And, a little irony, just when she’s changed its too late. She loses the only man who loved her despite, or because of, her evil. Rhett’s utter rejection of her, at last, gives us one of the most iconic lines in film history delivered with devastating skill.

    Yeah, I’m a Clark Gable fan. For me, he’s the real draw of the film. The hard eyed, roguish realist. Vivian Leigh is stunning but she’s hard to like. Speaking of hard to like….I hate Prissy with every fiber of my being….and she still doesn’t ruin the movie. Though she tries.

    I talked about the importance of Spectacle in my comments on The Great Ziegfeld and Gone with the Wind is another example of what people go to movies for. The colors still to this day still pop on the screen, the set and costume design are flawless. It’s just a great time.

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    1. Rhett was just sick and tired of her shit, no matter how pretty.

      I think the big difference between The Great Ziegfeld and this is the application of the spectacle. I was actually a big fan of the spectacle itself in The Great Ziegfeld. It was pretty much the only thing in the movie I really liked.

      In Gone with the Wind, Selznick really understood that he had to make the bigness match with an actual story. Can you imagine how interminable this four hour film would be without a solid story and strong characters? That’s something he helped shepherd into the film (and something he would lose sight of later in his career with stuff like Duel in the Sun, or so I’ve heard, I haven’t seen it yet), and it’s a great thing to hang all of these massive sets, huge special effects sequences, and daring do on.

      As George Lucas said, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing. Selznick, and everyone else involved, brought that story.

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