Gone With the Wind (1939)

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  • directed by Victor Fleming (uncredited: George Cukor and Sam Wood)
  • starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel
  • A manipulative woman and a roguish man carry out a love affair during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“How fickle is woman.”

So somehow I had never seen Gone With the Wind before aside from recently getting sucked into the middle of it on cable one night for a few minutes because it looked too pretty to switch off. More embarrassing and crazy is that it was my first Clark Gable movie. I don’t know how that happened. I didn’t really like his character in this, but it’s not the best role in which to judge him because he didn’t like himself in it either. Likewise, I didn’t much like any particular character in the film—I guess Melanie was the purest and most likable of all–and judging from what all the talent has expressed after the fact, nobody in the cast emerged from the production with 100 percent positive emotions about their experience.

As visually iconic as their portrayals are, the film doesn’t belong to Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable; nor does it belong to its team of directors Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood; and it’s definitely not author Margaret Mitchell’s, whose reclusive streak and stubbornness kept her from having any major involvement. Gone With the Wind was most of all the product of an individual obsessive vision and that was producer David O. Selznick’s. More than any other film I can think of, it consistently came across as just that—an epic-scale, manufactured product that utilizes advancements in technology and an enormous budget in the absence of engaging story and narrative focus. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever saying that Vivien Leigh stole the show or Victor Fleming directed the hell out of that film, because for me the bulk of the work in transporting the viewer was done by production, set, and costume designers, the cinematographer, and the score. Selznick put together an amazing state of the art vehicle, and you’d have to be a complete mess of an actress, actor, or director to have crashed it. Forget how revolutionary it was at the time, some of the scenes watched by me in 2013 gave a feeling like I may have been seeing color for the first time. I know there’s no such thing, but I’d be curious to see an avid lover of this film sit down to a black and white version and see what still holds up.

I didn’t like the film as a love story and I certainly didn’t like it for its length. The main enjoyment I got out of it was a direct result of everything that went into it—the money, a crew and cast of extras in the thousands, and an outright obsession with greatness on the part of Selznick. For years Selznick tortured over turning Mitchell’s novel into the biggest film ever. Casting was a nightmare, finding a director that both fit the film and pleased the cast carried over into filming and was never quite accomplished, the hype and publicity machine was churning for years and years to ensure near-hysteria amongst the public. And it worked. Audiences obviously loved it and history has been very kind.

When I set aside the buzz, though, I uncovered what were for me a lot of problems. It was as bloated as it was dazzling to look at. It did succeed at feeling like a huge statement film, a period at the end of the sentence of a big decade for the industry, along with the superior and more cohesive The Wizard of Oz. 1939 was a great year for quality films, but as far as technological advancements and the development of the modern studio system went, it was all leading uphill to these two monster endeavors. Both films share a director in Fleming and in a way both feature women clutching to escapism, Dorothy subconsciously and Scarlett very much the opposite of that, always quick with the “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” mantra to convince herself that all of the many horrors of the world and crimes of her desires don’t exist.

For her part, Scarlett was a lot like that horse in the end of Part I that Rhett had to put a hood on just so it would keep walking through the carnage. Blind to the world outside of her desires and with a laser-like focus on a life in love with Ashley, Scarlett didn’t allow war, murder, or the man she actually should be with enter into her frame of vision and obstruct the life she knew deep down she’d earned. I don’t know what would have happened to a Scarlett and Ashley union if given a chance to flourish but her desperation and fickle attitude throughout tells me that it’s just one of those things that she would yearn for and then tire of soon after it started.

Vivien Leigh was a great choice for the role. As beautiful, captivating, and believably Southern as she was, though, she had the impossible task of turning (to these modern eyes) a careless and unrepentant slave-owner of a woman into something resembling pleasant. It was a constant battle between restrained 1860’s grace versus loud 1930’s independence for Scarlett and the latter won out most of the time.

Another interesting thing to me was that Rhett struck me as a guy that was floating in and out of the action as a character not at all invested in the story but almost like a fourth-wall-breaking outside party or narrator, appearing only to unveil the messes that Scarlett continually swept under the rug to shove them back in her face. Rhett, aside from his growing admiration for the woman, is an opportunity for Scarlett to talk to herself and to examine the hurt she’s causing. It was an alright performance by Gable, obviously charming and commanding, but I kept thinking that in his relations with Scarlett prior to them actually getting together, he might as well have been a miniature angel standing on her shoulder, giving her a chance to face and express outward her scattered state of mind.

I think that Part I played pretty well, full of jaw-dropping visuals, and I loved the dark and fiery note that it ended on, but what happened during intermission? Why hadn’t I ever heard that Gone With the Wind was two movies far apart in tone and not one long one? Perhaps it should have been obvious to expect a film that had three directors at different points of production to at least play a little uneven. At least in Part I every time I started feeling disconnected, they would go ahead and deliver a crane shot or a sequence that had a punch and elegance I’d never seen before. The moment when we see Scarlett walking through the field of dead and wounded soldiers and it zooms out and seemingly never stops zooming until thousands are revealed was triumphant. The first and one of the only glances of the actual cost of war. Scarlett’s relationship to the war weakened the power, but a shot like that made me feel like the movie was ready to take it seriously even when she wasn’t (something that never really happened). The Atlanta Depot fire was another unbelievable sequence and I loved the film’s use of fire and smoke as backdrops from then on. In Part II, the tone shifts completely and there aren’t enough of those moments of visual brilliance to overshadow the tragic melodramatic occurrences by which Scarlett is plagued. The trash had piled up so high by the time Bonnie dies, that the scene came across as a joke and Rhett’s continued detachment didn’t help matters.

On top of the problems I had with Gone With the Wind as a piece of entertainment that needed serious trimming, I find myself agreeing with a lot of critics that liken the film’s depiction of a South full of content slaves and their compassionate owners to another technical groundbreaker The Birth of a Nation. The KKK was actually featured in one of the film’s final drafts before Selznick thought the better of it. I will always love the aesthetic of the good ol’ South and certain points of its culture, but I resented Gone With the Wind in a way for trying to sell me on an idyllic and carefree idea of something that I know never existed.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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