Gone with the Wind (1939) MGM/Drama RT: 238 minutes No MPAA Rating (a PG-13 equivalent- mild language, violent war images, one bloody murder, racial epithets/attitudes, implied sexual themes, adult situations, mature themes, drunkenness) Director: Victor Fleming Screenplay: Sidney Howard Music: Max Steiner Cinematography: Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes Release date: January 17, 1940 Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neill, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Oscar Polk, Howard C. Hickman, Alicia Rhett, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Ona Munson, Laura Hope Crews, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Harry Davenport, Leona Roberts, Cammie King. Box Office: $198.7 million (US)/ $390.5 (Worldwide)
When somebody says the word "epic" to me, one of the first movies that automatically come to mind is the 1939 Best Picture winner Gone with the Wind. No other film better defines this term than Victor Fleming's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel of life in the 19th century American South. Oddly enough, I never sat down and watched this film all the way through until its 1998 theatrical re-release, I have to admit that I was impressed with it! It's one of the best movies ever made!
It runs nearly four hours (including a 15-minute intermission), but it never gets slow or boring. I mention this because Gone with the Wind is a love story set against a major historical event....... the Civil War. Uh oh, do I hear the class bell ring? Okay students, take your seats! The American Civil War began in 1861 and lasted for four years. It was a war between the Southern (aka the Confederacy) and the Northern (aka the Union) States of America. In response to the election of President Abraham Lincoln, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States. As the movie opens (right on the eve of the war!), spoiled Scarlett O'Hara (Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire) isn't thinking about the looming war, she doesn't want to be bothered with anything like that, she just waves such things off and says "fiddle-dee-dee". She lives on a huge cotton plantation called Tara located in rural Georgia. She's thinking about the barbecue at the nearby Twelve Oaks plantation the next day where Ashley Wilkes (Howard, Pygmalion) plans to announce his engagement to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (de Havilland, The Swarm). Scarlett wants Ashley for herself and plans to do whatever it takes to win him away from sweet and naive Melanie. It bears mentioning that Scarlett O'Hara isn't a traditional romantic movie heroine, it wouldn't even be completely accurate to describe her as a tragic and/or flawed character. If I might be crude for a moment, the term "bitch" seems appropriate here. I'll discuss some of things that she does over the course of this review and you'll see what I mean, but take my word for it, this woman is completely toxic and borderline sociopathic. On the other hand, it could just be a simple lack of morals and values, something characteristic of a young Southern woman of privilege. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, I've only just begun to describe the plot of Gone with the Wind (as if it even needs to be explained to anybody over the age of 12).
At the barbecue, Scarlett makes her feelings known to Ashley and he turns her down by saying that while he has always secretly loved her, it's simply a matter of compatibility. One of the other guests at the barbecue, Rhett Butler (Gable, It Happened One Night) overhears the whole conversation and Scarlett runs out of the room humiliated and angry. He's not the most upstanding citizen himself, he's been thrown out of West Point and disowned by his own family. A few moments before, he made some pro-Union remarks during a very heated discussion about the current political situation. Just then, the war breaks out! All of the men rush to enlist and Scarlett agrees to marry Melanie's younger brother Charles (Brooks, Joan of Arc) even though she doesn't love him. They get married before he leaves to fight and dies of disease (pneumonia and measles) while serving in the Confederate Army. Over the next few years, the Civil War rages on and completely devastates the Old South. Scarlett now lives in Atlanta as a widow and helps her sister-in-law Melanie tend to the sick and wounded soldiers. Eventually, the Union invades Atlanta and burns the city to the ground in a spectacular sequence. By this point, she and her maid Prissy (McQueen) have just assisted in the premature birth of Melanie's baby and Scarlett decides that they should all return to Tara. Transportation isn't exactly easy to come by, so Scarlett asks Rhett to take them home. It's a treacherous and perilous journey, but Rhett manages to get the ladies close to their destination before leaving to join his Confederate brothers in arms. Eventually, Scarlett arrives at the family plantation and finds the place in ruins. The tide of the war has turned against the South and there's obviously some dark days ahead, but in a remarkable display of strength, Scarlett declares, "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry!" And cue Intermission.
I suppose that I should cease relating the events of Gone with the Wind in great detail, there may be a few who haven't seen this movie yet. Now that I think about it, there might be a few people who haven't seen this movie yet. When I was growing up, it aired on network TV once a year, a two-night television event that attracted everybody's parents and grandparents. Thanks to the home entertainment market, such broadcast events are obsolete, why would anybody care if NBC is showing a movie that one could watch anytime he/she wants on DVD? On the other hand, perhaps I should just bring you all up to the point where Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler finally get together. Okay, let's go with that! Scarlett cracks the whip for the remaining years of the war and tries to make Tara a working cotton plantation once again. She has her two younger sisters out working the fields with the soon-to-be-free slaves while Melanie recovers from her pregnancy ordeal. The war ends and Ashley returns home, but their problems aren't over yet, they're just about to get worse. It's the Reconstruction Era and that's when "the carpetbaggers" started coming around, taking advantage of the unstable political and economic structure of the South. The Reconstructionists place a huge tax on Tara and Scarlett doesn't have the money to pay it, so she once again goes to Rhett for help. He can't help this time because he's in jail, but Scarlett devises an alternate scheme to get her hands on the money when she bumps into her sister's fiancee, Frank Kennedy (Nye), in Atlanta. He's become a successful businessman, he owns and operates a general store and a lumber mill. Scarlett convinces him that her sister married another man because she got tired of waiting for him to make enough money to start their life together and then she steps in and marries him so she has access to his money. Problem solved! She takes over the business and ends up being responsible for Frank getting killed during a raid on a nearby shantytown. Finally, Rhett comes in and marries Scarlett, but the question is whether she can finally get past her feelings for Ashley and try to love somebody else? Everything that's happened in Gone with the Wind has led to this point, we know that Scarlett and Rhett will get together, but will there be a happily ever after?
I really don't know what I can say about Gone with the Wind that hasn't been said a million times already. Yes, it's a great movie! It's the cinematic equivalent to reading a good trashy romantic novel, you just can't put it down or hit STOP. I've sat through 90 minute movies that aren't as consistently interesting as this four hour film. It's a beautiful sight to behold, the whole Technicolor process augments the heightened passions and emotions. Max Steiner's score really adds to the drama and makes for the most memorable viewing experience one may ever have. The performances are great all around. Clark Gable....... he's the man! He gets off one of the most famous lines in movie history, it's also the greatest relationship closer that I've ever heard- "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." In 1939, the use of the word "damn" violated the Production Code, but the movie got a special pass and the line (taken from the novel) was kept intact. My mother told me that she and my aunt (when they were school girls) went to see this during one of its re-releases and the theater called my grandmother to check if they had permission to see the movie. How times have changed, right? Vivien Leigh delivers an Oscar-winning performance as the manipulative and selfish Scarlett O'Hara. At the beginning of the movie, she seems fickle and foolish, but we learn that she's not a stupid woman and she'll do whatever it takes to get what she wants. He have two characters who aren't the nicest people in the world, yet we're expected to root for them to get together, perhaps there's some redemption waiting in the wings if that happens. Once their daughter comes along, Rhett wants to becomes a respectable member of society and he tries his best to be a proper gentleman. But does he have some sort of angle here or is he really looking to change his ways? One could argue that Gone with the Wind is a high class, literary soap opera and he/she wouldn't be entirely wrong.
And now for the elephant in the room, modern audiences consider Gone with the Wind to be pretty racist and I can see their point. Take the character of Mammy (McDaniel), the O'Haras' outspoken housemaid who's been with the family for many years. Her mannerisms could be seen as stereotypical and offensive today, but one must look at the depiction of the character in its proper historical context. The story is set during the Civil War, slavery was still legal and many of them didn't receive a proper education. Mammy isn't a stupid woman, she knows exactly what Scarlett intends to do when it comes to trying to win Ashley away from Melanie. She might not speak like an Ivy League scholar, but I'll bet she could blow some of them right out of the water when it comes to common sense and figuring out people. She delivers one of the best performances in Gone with the Wind, it looks like the Academy agreed because they awarded her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Prissy assures Scarlett that she knows everything about childbirth, so when the time comes for Melanie to deliver her child, she'll be in good hands. Of course, when the times comes, Prissy exclaims,"I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" It's a funny moment, but I can see where today's audiences might find something like that objectionable. Not to mention all the references to "darkies". Remember what I said about historical context? It's an accurate depiction of another time in American history (according to the different teachers that I've had over the years), one that actually asks audiences to sympathize with the Confederacy throughout and after the Civil War. Really? The Confederacy....... a bunch of people looking to tear apart the United States of America? Then we're supposed to feel sorry for them in the aftermath of the conflict as they struggle to rebuild their shattered lives and burnt-down homes. Strangely enough, the viewer does feel sympathy for the "enemy". Of course, one cannot hold an entire society responsible for the actions of their leaders. I'm not attempting to write a political essay here, I just thought that this was an interesting point about Gone with the Wind, something that I hadn't really thought about until my most recent viewing of the movie.
In addition to being one of the best movies ever made, Gone with the Wind won 10 Academy Awards- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, an Honorary Award for William Cameron Menzies (outstanding use of color) and a Technical Achievement Award for Selznick International Pictures. It also won the Irving G. Thalberg Award for David O. Selznick (career achievements as producer). McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar. I neglected to mention a wonderful and touching supporting performance from Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. Of all the women I've seen in movies, she's probably one of nicest and sweetest female characters ever. She always wants to believe the best of people, even when evidence and gossip tells her otherwise. Melanie has to know that Scarlett wants to steal Ashley away from her, it's plainly obvious! In one scene, she welcomes Scarlett into her home with open arms after she was seen in a questionable position with Ashley. The gossip spreads around town like wild fire and Rhett forces her to attend a birthday party for Ashley and face the consequences on her own. Not that he's the most upstanding figure himself, he stills pays visits to a local prostitute, Belle Watling (Munson) and spends evenings in her company. The only thing that prevented her from winning the Oscar that year was her competition...... Hattie McDaniel. Wow, that must have been a tough call! I'm going to leave it at this..... if you've never seen Gone with the Wind, go and watch it IMMEDIATELY! You have your orders, now march!