#235 (tie) – Gone With The Wind (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

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Rebel yell. As the music soars and the Technicolor sunset smolders, Scarlett O’Hara throws herself up in defiance of the world in the smash hit melodrama Gone With The Wind, the most successful film of all time (inflation adjusted).

Margaret Mitchell’s mammoth novel Gone With The Wind was released to critical acclaim and blockbuster sales in 1936, making it pretty much inevitable that the book would be transmogrified into a Hollywood film. Though the director credit ultimately went to filmmaker Victor Fleming, the movie Gone With The Wind was principally the work of famed producer David O. Selznick, who doggedly worked to bring the story to the screen. And what an expansive story it is. Gone With The Wind delves into the Civil War-era American South through the experiences of the beautiful but haughty, selfish, and conniving Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (in a star-making turn by Vivien Leigh). The film follows Scarlett through the outbreak of the Civil War, the destruction of Atlanta, and the turbulent era of post-war reconstruction, as she seethes over a long-standing infatuation while marrying several times for convenience. Her third husband is the charismatic scoundrel Rhett Butler, played by Hollywood heavyweight Clark Gable, who brings a grounded common sense to a land of outmoded chivalry and decaying aristocracy. Though not a good place to go in search of subtlety or a racially progressive outlook, Gone With The Wind is in no way stingy with its spectacle. Epic in scale, length, cast size, and emotion, the film is also a sumptuous feast of Technicolor cinematography in a black-and-white era. (238 min.)

J. – I’m really going to try to be fair and cogent in our discussion, S., but I may as well let it be known from the start: I hate this movie. I hated it when I first saw it years ago, and I hated it when we watched it at the Astor Theatre the other day. And I’m going to love explaining why I hate Gone With The Wind (henceforth GWTW), but I’ll refrain for the moment and start out with the elements I actually like quite a bit.

Whatever I feel about GWTW as a whole, I am absolutely, 100% willing to praise the look of the film. It is a luminously beautiful movie, with some of the most striking Technicolor cinematography of any film ever made. Part of that is undoubtedly a component of the scale of the film, as it’s difficult to not be impressed by the grand houses, the balls, and the massive scenes of Atlanta in peril. Even Rhett and Scarlett’s house looks beautiful on celluloid even though it is clearly a nouveau riche Victorian nightmare of a home. But I think there are two other visual elements that are ultimately more important. One is the extensive use of shadows throughout GWTW. So many scenes are bathed in shadows, which add a real intensity and broadcast emotions in a much more effective (but nuanced) manner than the over-declarative script. There are a number of beautiful scenes that take place almost entirely in silhouette, such as the famous “With God as my witness…” ending to the first half of the film (see still above), and others involve actors standing in the only lit area within pools of darkness — setups which make little sense but look fantastic. And this disregard of reality when it comes to lighting is also applied to the use of color, which is sometimes wielded to a unhinged degree that seems well beyond fantasy. GWTW must be one of the oldest films on the list to have been filmed entirely in color, and I assume that the newness of the Technicolor process really encouraged the filmmakers to go crazy with it. And that riotous palette is the film’s visual coup.

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The lurid color palette and excellent use of shadow serve Gone With The Wind beautifully. In this shot, for instance, the shadows and the pool of light in the middle make no sense, but are visually dynamic. Whatever we may feel about the storytelling and the characters the epic visuals of the film are undeniably glorious. (Rhett’s, um, forward way with women on the other hand…)

S. – GWTW is certainly a spectacle regardless of the dubious story it tells. Colour was embraced with unchecked enthusiasm and brought a sense of hyper-reality to much of the film. It is little wonder it drove audiences wild back in 1939. Not only was the colour saturated it was creatively manipulated. My favorite scenes of the film are those where the colour was used to amplify the drama, such as the silhouette shots against an unbelievably lurid sunset and the devastating burning of Atlanta. I had seen this movie a couple of times previously on television many years ago and was curious to experience it on the big screen. It certainly added to the visual impact but it was not so sympathetic to the characters, who were pantomime caricatures of good, bad, mean and just plain crazy. The directors certainly seemed happy to challenge the audience with artistic visuals but this did not extend the portrayal of the protagonists who are so shallow and feeble-minded it’s small wonder the South hadn’t accidentally burned itself down long before the Yankees showed up. (Disclosure – I don’t like this movie either.)

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The film is also deserving of the overused term “epic”, particularly through the massive scale of the Atlanta sequences. The burning of Atlanta is tense and visually arresting. Interestingly, the “city” burning in the background is actually the wall and gate from the Skull Island village in King Kong (1933).

J. – I certainly wasn’t looking forward to watching GWTW again, but I am pleased we did so at a theater because it is a movie that cries out for the big screen. But I agree that seeing petty people blown up two stories high doesn’t really do anything to make them more sympathetic. The characters really are nearly one-dimensional pantomimes, with the exception of Rhett. I look forward to discussing Scarlett, but I think I’d first like to tackle the characters of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and his wife/cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). In the book (as I understand it) Ashley is about 21 years old when the war breaks out, which makes sense, as his fickleness and indecisiveness seem more appropriate in a young man. But Leslie Howard was 46 when this film came out, which makes his weakness and timidity downright intolerable. The character is also inconsistent in feel, as the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether he is a good, strong noble man or a fey, fickle wuss. Rather than rounding out the character or making him appear genuinely conflicted, this all comes across as muddled and dull. It therefore becomes impossible to understand why Scarlett might pine for this loser. But even worse is Melanie, a character of such superhuman goodness that you pretty much want to head butt her. The film goes to such pains to make Melanie seem so good and so pure that the character is drained of all vitality and interest — and sympathy, as she almost borders on condescending. I think some blame has to go to de Havilland, whose performance stresses the doe-eyed side of the character without giving enough heft to Melanie’s determination, which is the most interesting aspect of the character. With such weak supporting roles, the central love quadrilateral meant to drive the drama feels like it really only has two sides.

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Vivien Leigh (left) gives a fiery performance as Scarlett O’Hara that is hampered by a poor, over-declarative script. But Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie and Leslie Howard’s Ashley are nearly inert, stripping the film’s romantic conflicts of all passion and tension.

S. – I remember Ashley’s advanced age bothering me extremely when watching this movie as a teen. Not for one moment was it believable that the flirty and vibrant Scarlett O’Hara would even notice the dull and pallid old Ashley Wilkes. It was almost like he was still in black-and-white while everything else on screen was in blazing colour, an inexplicable and disastrous casting choice. But the main source of my discontent from the first viewing was always smelly Melly. Presented as a paragon of feminine virtue, which by Southern standards apparently means smiling inanely when your brother marries the wrong woman, your husband embraces your sister-in-law, you help cover-up a murder, your slave helps you out of your coat or a prostitute gives you some money. Always there to pat someone’s hand and mummer comforts in times of trouble but with no personal thoughts, feelings or aspirations. Basically Melanie is a doormat and a highly appropriate match for Ashley, why on earth you would want these two characters on screen let alone expect an audience to warm to them is baffling. Scarlett and Rhett have their faults, quite a few actually, but at least they make for lively viewing. Perhaps the character of Melanie was intended to be a foil for the wickedness of Miss O’Hara but the limpid performance of de Havilland alienated the character for me.

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As mentioned above, the movie makes excellent use of shadows and generally looks wonderful, but the difference between Leigh and de Havilland couldn’t be more clear. There is an imperious, selfish quality that Leigh can bring to her part (even in the rare moments when she is silent), whereas de Havilland’s goody-goody is just blank.

J. – A limp and limpid performance for sure (nice use of limpid, S.). But I also detest Scarlett, and not in the good kind of way. Scarlett’s character is meant to be simply awful and detestable, and I can totally get behind the idea of having such a person as the centerpiece of a film. However, GWTW seems to do all it can to make us sympathize with Scarlett even as it’s trying to paint her as a manipulative, callous harlot. That’s a real problem for me, in that she is not a character who should be drawing the concern and admiration of the audience. But the movie just can’t seem to divest itself of the notion that the heroine is supposed to be someone the audience loves — as opposed to “loves to hate”. Consequently you end up in the same position as one does with Ashley, a character who doesn’t feel rounded out by contradictions so much as muddled and poorly thought out. It’s a real shame too, because Vivien Leigh generally does an excellent job with the material she has to work with. She is able to make Scarlett quite vicious and easy on the eyes and ears at the same time, which is by no means a simple thing to accomplish. But the script fails Leigh constantly and makes her one of the strangest emotional automatons in cinema history. Scarlett is constantly speaking her feelings out loud — even if she is by herself — instead of, you know, acting. That’s just bad writing and unsure direction. The best movies show; GWTW always, always tells.

S. – The acting of Leigh and Gable make this travesty of a story watchable, there is no doubting the mega-watt star power they bring to the screen. However, Scarlett is kind of horrifying, particularly as she is posited as the heroine of the piece. I can see that she does display some positive attributes such as initiative and determination in trying times but it is a little like praising an arsonist for persistently burning down everything in sight. As far as I can tell the fact that she is: 1. very pretty and 2. hell-bent on retaining the family property, means she is heroic. Never mind that this sense of family connection does not extend to sparing a moment’s energy in nurturing a relationship with any family members, be they her sisters, husbands or her daughter.

Watching GWTW anew leaves me at a loss as to what the movie is trying to say about the South. The early part of the film presents it as an idyllic wonderland that was unfairly invaded, yet the main characters invite no sympathy. Instead they show themselves to be stubborn, foolish and blind to the circumstances of those outside their circle of privilege. Only Rhett comes close to tackling the dilemma of defending a system that elevates the few while breaking the backs of many and is widely considered a scoundrel for his views. Yet even he is unwilling to entirely shake the trappings of the old Southern world view.

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Leigh’s Scarlett is luminous, but the attention paid to the character by the camera produces a certain cognitive dissonance throughout the film. Through its tone and fawning gaze, the movie insists we engage with and sympathize with Scarlett even though every aspect of her character inspires revulsion — a revulsion the movie probably should have embraced.

J. – I was born in New York and raised in New England, my baseball team of choice is the Yankees; so it is probably not surprising that I have a powerful revulsion to the glorification of pretty much anything to do with the antebellum South, at least with regard to its politics and heavily stratified society. The elephant in the room for GWTW is slavery, and it seems to take the greatest pains to avoid looking that beast in the eye. I loathe the way the film implies that slaves had it pretty good in the Old South and cringe at the stereotyping it perpetuates through most of its black characters. Which is a real pity, because two of the best performances in the film are by black actresses. Hattie McDaniel (who won the Oscar for her efforts) gives a rounded, sympathetic, and fiery performance in the role of Mammy, even if her house slave/nanny role is stereotypical and cliched in many respects. And Butterfly McQueen does an excellent job taking a character (Prissy) whom white audiences of the time probably thought of as a “shiftless negro” and transforming her into something more subversive and real. There’s this nonsense at the beginning of the film referring to the Old South as the last days of chivalry. Perhaps that’s true, but that’s hardly a positive virtue, as chivalry means nothing but despair and exclusion to all but the privileged elite — status is everything in the courtly realm. So when former aristocrats are complaining about how it hurts their precious hands to pick cotton, how on Earth can the filmmakers expect me to care? Again, I wouldn’t have a problem with being in opposition to the characters if the movie didn’t insist so hard on us connecting with them and feeling their misery. Frankly, my dear… well you know the rest. (And for those who might say that it was a product of its times, remember GWTW premiered only 16 years before the Civil Rights Movement roared into prominence — it’s not acceptable.)

But as for Rhett, I think it’s one of the great things about his character that he is unable to leave the South wholly behind. He may have a more clearheaded view of things than others, but it would be even more difficult to believe that he has somehow spent his days unaffected by the society around him. And as the only character in the movie who has a real personality, I’m glad he has flaws in several of his parts — contradictions that in his case generate complexity rather than a muddled bucket of ort. I think Rhett Butler is actually an excellent character in a pretty crappy movie, and GWTW suffers every time Gable is not on screen. Gable invests Rhett with so much charisma that he manages to make a rather brazen scumbag into the most likable character in the film. Although, I must say he is a lot more rape-y than I remembered, which was disconcerting.

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Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel give the finest performances of the film, making real, fleshed out characters out of the awkward script. Both actors have an undeniable charisma that is sadly lacking in most of the other performances.

S. – I fully agree that Clark Gable brings a lot of complexity to Rhett, a quality sadly lacking in the other central characters. But I don’t lay all of the blame on the actors. As you have mentioned, J., the dialogue is woeful, possibly a result of the directorial strife that plagued the production. Once you become aware of Scarlett’s incessant narration it is truly maddening. Perhaps this should have been a silent film?

Gone With The Wind is not a great movie despite its fame, although it certainly had the potential to be. It looks spectacular, it is set in turbulent times and the “love quadrilateral” scenario creates a promising foundation but it is stymied by tip-toeing around the slavery issue. I do not have a deep understanding of slave history in the US but feel appalled at the way slavery is carelessly overlooked here when it was a fundamental reason for the clash between North and South. I fear that the callous disregard for the stories of the slaves that shared the protagonists lives, including the excellent Mammy, is a sad statement about the inequalities that were still rife in the 1930s. It may be a feast for the eyes but the story told is far from satisfying.

J. – Well said, S. I almost felt bad for not liking Gone With The Wind when I first saw it, given its status as an uber-classic and the continuing affection it seems to provoke in audiences (it certainly drew a big crowd at the Astor). But now that I’ve seen it on the big screen, I can say with utter confidence that Gone With The Wind is a beautiful, terrible movie. And with God as my witness, I will never watch it again!

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In the end, Gone With The Wind works best when it goes big, overawing the audience with its scope and dazzling cinematography. But it speaks volumes that the most powerful shot of the film — the square of the Southern wounded — has no dialogue and almost no involvement by the principal cast. Gone With The Wind often falls flat when it needs to work on a human level, and that is an unforgivable failing.

Related yammers:
#93 – Intolerance (1916), dir. D.W. Griffth
#183 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford
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