[18 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It holds too many titles to be totally beholden to just one: most popular movie of all time (adjusted dollars or straight admissions, of course); greatest example of classic Hollywood filmmaking ever; best adaptation of an otherwise questionable work of popular fiction; greatest film of all time; racially insensitive embarrassment (and often, downright horrific in its intolerance); over the top; melodramatic; superbly acting; and a fascinating piece of filmmaking. Still, for all the badges it’s forced to wear, Gone with the Wind never really gets the tag it seems closest to actually achieving - that of a modern day Greek tragedy. You see, built into Margaret Mitchell’s highly romanticized vision of a pre/post Civil War South is a central figure so flawed, so twisted by destiny in both successful and sinister ways that you just can’t help but see the artistry of ancient civilizations at work.
Our tragic “heroine” is, of course, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) - spoiled brat daughter of Irish plantation owner Gerald and his distant wife Ellen. Long in love with neighboring well-to-do Georgian Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the belle is devastated when she learns that the man she adores plans on marrying another. Even though Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland) is the salt of the Earth, Scarlett is convinced that Ashley can be hers. When she is rejected, she runs off and marries the first man who asks - Melanie’s brother Charles. Suddenly, the Civil War starts, putting everyone in peril. It is also at this time that Scarlett meets the man who is destined to wander in and out of her life for the next few years - Charleston dandy and all around he-man gadfly, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). The battles both personal and sovereign begin, and Scarlett is soon a widow.
When Sherman finally reaches Atlanta, the O’Haras and Hamiltons must find a means of escape. Naturally, Capt. Butler finds a way of saving them. Returning to her home plantation, Tara, Scarlett discovers her mother dead and her father demented. Determined to “never be hungry again”, she woos the interloping carpetbaggers who come to Georgia after the war while taking up with older man Frank Kennedy (who just so happens to be one of her sister’s beaus). When he dies in a skirmish with “the Yankees”, Scarlett becomes a rich widow - and soon, an even wealthier business owner. Of course, Butler has never gotten over the wily little vixen, and they soon are married. They even have a child - a young daughter named Bonnie Blue. But as Butler dotes on his offspring, Scarlett is still pining for Ashley. It’s an obsession that will lead her down a path of personal ruin.
Even 70 years after the fact, Gone with the Wind remains the stuff of legend both on and off the screen. Over the decades, a dedicated scholarship has surrounded the film, the kind of in-depth discussion and analysis reserved for only the finest works of cultural significance. In the case of Wind, what Producer David O. Selznick went through to realize his vision of Mitchell’s best-selling tome is indeed filmic folklore made even more mythic. We see it scattered throughout the amazing 70th Anniversary Edition box-set - from commentary tracks that explain the lengthy development process to documentaries which dig deep into every facet of the film. Perhaps the most crucial was the casting, a literal free-for-all that saw many of the modern Tinseltown luminaries (Errol Flynn, Bette Davis) vie for roles that would eventually go to others - and then become iconic.
Selznick somehow stumbled upon British unknown Vivian Leigh (amidst a who’s who of available superstar talent) and the perfect tour de force of nature was unleashed. Everything about the actress’s portrayal is dead-on: Scarlett’s conniving juvenilia; her unwilling stubbornness; her passion and drive; her flitty sexuality, her untethered heart; the fiery jealousy, the inherent weakness; the hubris that makes her think she can succeed at all costs; the blindness to unwittingly destroy the innocent; the balls to break the strong. When she points a pistol at a Yankee soldier, determined to defend her birthright, you just know the man is getting a face full of lead. That it barely fazes her speaks volumes for what Leigh brings to Scarlett. Without a deft touch, the character would be hateful. The Oscar winner makes her truly epic.
The same goes with Gable. He is locked in a roll as sideline to Scarlett, given a last act trifecta of moments to finally shine. But when he’s standing there, moustache speaking volumes and squint substituting for libido, we can feel the sexual chemistry boiling in the broad shouldered hunk. Gable was only 37 when he took the role of Butler, but he comes across as a man more worldly wise and school of hard knocks educated than individuals twice his age. When he tries to talk down the Southern “gentlemen” who are fired up to defend the honor of the South against Lincoln, you can see his smug resolve in every syllable. Similarly, when defending the madam who has helped both him and various Atlanta causes from behind the shadows of social scandal, you will never see a more fierce protector. Granted, he gets his blubbery bow when disaster hits a little too close to home, but for the most part, Gable’s Butler is the cocksure calm within a halting historic maelstrom.
But perhaps the most underrated turn belongs to Olivia De Havilland as the Christ-like angel Melanie - a woman Capt. Butler refers to as the only genuinely nice person he ever met. While Leslie Howard’s Ashley is so weepy we hardly see what Scarlett wants with him, we get the connection between the wimp and his wondrous wife. She’s non-judgmental (at least, not outwardly), finds the good in almost everyone, and even when she fails to fully disclose someone’s better nature, she inherently realizes why they are hiding behind such vile hatefulness. Some have found her openly naïve (she never seems to “get” that Ashley and Scarlett are smitten with each other) and generous to a fault, but when she helps Scarlett dispose of a recently deceased intruder, you can tell that the goody-goody act is covering up for a much stronger, much braver soul.
Together, this talented trio takes Gone with the Wind through its most unusual narrative structure. Indeed, this may be the first film that plays like its set-up and sequel all in one. Both stories are jumpstarted by Scarlett throwing herself at - and being resoundingly rejected by - Ashley. In the first half, she suffers through the Hells of war. Men dying. Brutal surgery and rampant disease. The destruction of her family and home. The loss of her social identity and heritage. While it may take some viewers aback, Gone with the Wind laments the loss of Southern gentility (and the people as property aspects that go with it). Even Butler chokes out a few words about “dem darkies” every now and then. While the African American cast including Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, and Oscar Polk do their ethnicity proud, the first part of the movie is like a mint julep smothered in a minstrel show.
The second part - much better, as it gives the former servants some humanizing scenes - is more of a battle for individual valor. Scarlett gets rich, continues to ruin lives, and becomes a scandal. Her new husbands hand her money and prominence, but the unrequited love she feels for Ashley is destined to destroy her. She just can’t help it. It’s her nature…the core of her being…her fatal flaw. This is why Gone with the Wind is so much like a work by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides. Heck, even during those moments when Leigh and Gable conversationally spar like players in a screwball comedy, we think more of Shakespeare than Hawkes or Capra. While the film is definitely locked into the era-appropriate manipulations of highly drawn dramatics, there is a darkness to the last act of the film that really burrows beneath your skin. Indeed, when Gable renders his classic line, it’s less of a slap in the face and more of a three hour in the making epiphany.
With bravura director from Victor Fleming (though many have been credited, it is his Technicolor vision, along with that of replacement cinematographer Ernest Haller that makes this movie look like a series of canvas masterpieces come to life) and a script agonized over by Selznick and several of the 1930s best writers - including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht - Gone with the Wind is still dated, but it’s a dynamite kind of antiquity. The new DVD (and even better, Blu-ray) brings out the marvels in old form moviemaking: the controlled camerawork, the gorgeous lighting, the then-experimental and boundary pushing special effects. Of course, once we get into the meat of the added content and learn of the various tricks employed, including several dozen dummies substituting for wounded war casualties during the famous train yard triage scene, the power of such old fashioned flash is minimized. Bu it cannot be discounted.
Nor can one ignore the wealth of information in the bonus features. Full length overviews of the production provide as much detail as currently possible. Archival footage shows director Fleming in full-blown dictatorial mode, while actors and historians are interviewed about the film’s lasting appeal. Impact is gauged with a comparison to historical accuracies (and many inaccuracies), while 1939 is celebrated as ‘the greatest year in Hollywood’. We even get bits on the restoration process, the reasons behind the Civil War, and a TV movie starring Tony Curtis as a desperate-for-a-leading-lady Selznick. Topped off with a six hour retrospective on MGM entitled When the Lion Roars, the red velvet box set almost crumbles under the weight of its attempted thoroughness. While it could never be all encompassing, it definitely stands as one of the definitive compilations of the digital era.
And yet, for all its ballyhoo and cleverly marketed merchandising, it’s the characters from Gone with the Wind that continue to stir our imagination. Sure, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy are about as close to an all out hate crime as Golden Era Hollywood ever comes, but they aren’t completely demoralized by their human chattel challenges. Similarly, for all his lily-livered laments, Ashley Wilkes loves his wife and son. Rhett Butler may be a cad, a rogue, a scallywag, and any number of additional outdated epithets you want to hurl. But he’s also suave and smooth - and a savior when situations demand it. As two sides of the strong Southern Belle symbol, Melanie and Scarlett stand as pillars in a sea of quicksand, women willing to use their guile and their wits to work wonders on an antebellum arena torn between two conflicting ideologies (and too much male pride). Naturally, it’s that fatal flaw that keeps coming to the fore, leading to only one creative conclusion - tragedy. That’s why Scarlett O’Hara is so put upon, and powerful. That’s why Gone with the Wind remains a certified cinematic gem.