Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Gone With the Wind (#74)

The Favorites - Gone With the Wind (#74)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Gone With the Wind (1939/USA/dir. Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood) appeared at #74 on my original list.

What it is • Gone with the Wind doesn't need much introduction (but I'll provide one anyway). Seventy-seven years after its release, with virtually the entire cast, crew, and even most of the original audience long "gone with the wind" themselves (except for the game Olivia De Havilland, who will turn 100 this year), the film remains an infamous example of classic Hollywood romanticism. Ironically, despite its status as the archetypal product of the Golden Age, this isn't exactly a product of the studio system assembly line, owing its existence to David O. Selznick, an independent producer with a vision. Based on Margaret Mitchell's bestseller, the film mixes an epic historical scope with intimate melodrama, albeit not entirely evenly (the former dominates the first half, the latter the second). Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) begins the story as a bratty teenage belle, living in splendor and luxury that she takes entirely for granted. When the tale closes four hours later, she is a thrice-married woman of the world who has experienced war, hunger, and poverty, who has worked a field and run a business, while watching many of her friends and family die off. She is not particularly admirable, wooing two lovers whom she doesn't love away from other women (including her own sister), trying to steal her loyal friend's husband, ruthlessly exploiting and manipulating strangers and friends alike to earn a living, and generally refusing to feel shame for her improprieties. She's also the best thing about the movie, rivaled only by the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) for similar reasons: both of them cut through the intoxicating but disingenuous air of Hollywood pomposity and Old South sentimentality. The film has many big setpieces but I think the cornerstone of its greatness is lain by this dynamic human element.

Why I like it •
That said, I do like the lavish sets, and the swelling music, and especially the glorious Technicolor. At times the hypercharged palette is so gaudy that, especially on the VHS version that's still part of my collection, it looks more like a cartoon than a live-action movie. (The movie's memorable look is largely due to William Cameron Menzies, who received Hollywood's first-ever "production designer" credit for his work on Gone with the Wind.) I also enjoy the story's sprawling nature: economy is well and good, but I'm a sucker for stories that contain multitudes - especially if they depict transformations. Gone with the Wind covers a relatively short period in which people and places changed drastically and as such it joins other Favorites on this list like Platform or La Roue. And the film doesn't just have sweep, it has stature. Certain moments, especially those three moments where silhouetted figures stand against the sky as Max Steiner's music reaches a crescendo, are so iconic they leave you almost dizzy afterwards; they are bigger than the film itself. But such monumentalism can't really sustain a reputation for three-quarters of a century, so again I return to the characters of Rhett and Scarlett, and the performances of Gable and Leigh. They ensure that amidst the elephantine excess, most scenes have a termitic focus. Scarlett in particular is the linchpin of the movie. As far as I can recall, there isn't a single scene she isn't either shown or mentioned in (mostly shown). Although Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland are dragged down by their fairly one-note characters, Hattie McDaniel works wonders in her Oscar-winning performance, going about as far as possible to redeem the story's inherently condescending take on race (this is a movie that opens with a scroll nostalgically hearkening to the days of "Master and Slave" before evasively referring to the black characters as "servants" even before the war). This was the first time I watched Gone with the Wind since the Confederate flag burst back into public consciousness last summer, making the film's Lost Cause trappings appear more retrograde than ever. So it was interesting to note the extent to which the Civil War is actually window-dressing for the movie's core concerns (although I had forgotten how effectively the Tara bookends work in the first half, with the grim postwar squalor providing a sharp contrast to the sunny antebellum sequence). Back in 1939, several critics argued that the film should have focused more on the war, allowing it to be a subject rather than a backdrop. In the long run, I think, Gone with the Wind benefits from its attachment to the characters. The myth is there to grease the wheels and provide moments of grandeur but we know it is a myth (and one concealing very ugly truths). Ultimately, the characters know this too and this is the film's anchor. Two contradictory qualities characterize classic Hollywood cinema: the desire for the larger-than-life, and the appreciation of the down-to-earth. Gone with the Wind is an expert mixture of both, and its legacy is ensured by its specificity, perhaps even more than its scope.

How you can see it • Gone with the Wind is available on DVD from Netflix. I wrote a more detailed full-length review following a theatrical screening in 2009.

What do you think? • When you first saw the film were you aware of its reputation, and did this impact your perception of it? What do you think of Scarlett? Of Rhett? Do you sympathize with one or the other, do your sympathies shift, or do you find both of them unsympathetic? Does this affect your enjoyment of the movie? Why do you think the film has had such a lasting legacy? Have you seen it on the big screen and how did this experience differ from watching alone and/or on TV? Do you think the directors of Gone with the Wind don't get enough credit? How does the film compare to the novel? How does it compare to The Birth of a Nation, another early American blockbuster with similar subject matter? Does the film's take on the Civil War and plantation life damage its standing today? Do you think the actors are able to humanize the slave characters, or are they trapped by cliched writing and directing? If you are not American, how do you relate (or not relate) to the subject matter (Olivia de Havilland has said that European survivors of World War II were particularly affected by its portrayal of defeat and occupation)? When you think of the movie do you think of spectacle or smaller moments?

• • •

Previous week: Pandora's Box (#75)


dale wittig said...

Concerning your essay on Gone with the Wind: while it is not a film that I hold in high esteem, I believe there is one particular quality in which the film makers distinguished themselves and that is in the visual quality of the film, its production design and photography; which makes it particularly ironic that you should fail to mention in your essay the man most responsible for that aspect of the work. Not only was William Cameron Menzies the art director and production designer, he was the person Selznick designated as having the last word in every visual aspect of the film, including the photography and the use of technicolor. He also directed the sequence known as the Burning of Atlanta. I realize that you were merely following the IMDB in listing Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood as the film's three directors, but as you learn more about film history you may also learn to question this very useful but fallible resource and not take everything that is placed there as fact.

Joel Bocko said...

Menzies' unique role in the production does not mean he should be attributed as director. I do wish I had thought to mention him in the capsule (which is a brief overview of why the film is among my subjective favorites, not by any means a thorough historical overview) but it slipped my mind unfortunately. This is despite having read about his work with Selznick, something you are not the first to bring to my attention. He certainly deserves praise for the film's design and perhaps I'll retroactively edit the piece to reflect that.

In the future please refrain from condescending and inaccurate assumptions about my engagement with film history. Thanks.

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