Tuesday, September 8, 2009

1939 - Gone With the Wind

After a pleasant weekend in New Jersey, eating good food and playing Trivial Pursuit with good friends, and leisurely strolling through Princeton and eating more good food with more good friends, I sat down to watch the epic Gone With the Wind. Kat watched with me and gallantly made it to the intermission before heading off to bed, but I persevered and saw it through to the end. And I have to admit, I'm very glad that I did.

The next nominee from 1939, and the eventual winner of the Best Picture award, is none other than...

Gone With the Wind
Victor Fleming
Sidney Howard
(based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)
Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress

I've written and rewritten this opening sentence at least a dozen times in the vain hope I might be able to introduce this film by conveying something that is remotely unique. Discussing arguably the most famous movie in cinematic history is a somewhat daunting task, if only because of the knowledge that almost every other film critic, film historian and film buff in the last seventy years has already weighed in on the topic. Hence, I shall simply be content that my views are merely my views, interesting or otherwise.

Scarlett O'Hara is a Southern belle living on her family's farm, Tara, with her ma and pa and two sisters, during the American Civil War. Her passionate crush on neighbour Ashley Wilkes is technically not unrequited, but in practical terms, it might as well be, because Ashley marries Melanie Hamilton instead. Nevertheless, Scarlett pursues him consistently, while rejecting the advances of the charming Rhett Butler, who seems to be the only person unwilling to succumb to Scarlett's every whim. She marries a lot, for spite and for money, inconsiderate to the feelings of those around her. She is, without doubt, a spoilt brat. And even after she endures humbling hardships, she remains a brat. So much so, that the local madam is a more likable character. Yet, in the end, Scarlett learns her lesson and vows to change her selfish ways. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Gone With the Wind is most definitely an epic and majestic film. And considering its costly budget (the largest of its era), you would certainly expect the production values to be extravagant. Lavish costumes, grandiose sets, vivid colour cinematography, spectacular special effects, beautiful music, exciting stunts, huge crowd scenes. A feast for the eyes and the ears. It almost seems unfair to its competition. There is simply no doubt money can be a great boon to a production's quality. Can be. Not always. It still has to captivate its audience with its story. Luckily, Gone With the Wind succeeds there, as well.

The entire film is very much akin to a play. It has an overture (and an entr'acte and exit music). It begins by displaying a cast of characters. It even has an intermission. The structure of the story is exceptionally well paced. As I have frequently mentioned, many films adapted from novels, including several other nominees of 1939, have suffered from too short a script. The narrative feels rushed and distant. No such issue with Gone With the Wind. At close to four hours long, it definitely takes its time. And for the better, in my opinion. Despite being an epic tale, it is never complicated. The breathing time allows us to follow Scarlett's journey in a simple yet comprehensive way.

Having an Australian education, I'm not too familiar with the American Civil War. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to recognise the Southern bias that Gone With the Wind emits. Considering the Southern origins of the novel's author, that is perhaps unsurprising. However, the film is also, at times, blatantly racist without an obvious sense of satire. But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the film was simply intended to be completely faithful to its source. And perhaps Margaret Mitchell, the novel's author, also intended to be completely faithful to her sources. Still, one wonders whether that excuse would be enough to pass muster in today's cinema.

This discussion of the appropriateness of certain material becomes all the more interesting when you consider the restrictions that were placed on films of that time. Racism and violence may have been acceptable, but heaven forbid anyone mention sex. Quite often, however, this constraint only made for a cleverer script, as it did in this instance. There is no sign of any improper displays of bare flesh, nor any blatant reference to anything remotely sexual, and yet the subject of sex pervades this film in several sequences. The scriptwriters (and despite Sidney Howard's exclusive credit, there were several scriptwriters) were forced to be ingenious about how they broached the topic and it creates a fantastically subtle intensity.

Vivien Leigh could not have asked for a more spectacular debut. She is exceptional as the spoilt Scarlett. Classic movie star Clark Gable is perfect as Rhett, exuding charm when he delivers lines like, "You should be kissed and often. And by someone who knows how." You can just hear the women in the audience swooning. Other standouts are Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the latter becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar.

Gone With the Wind has clearly stood the test of time. Accounting for inflation, it is the most financially successful film in history. People flocked to the cinema in 1939 to see it, and it remains a consistently popular home viewing choice today. When I first saw this film as a teenager, I wasn't particularly interested, but it honestly grabbed me this time, and to a large extent. I found it to be a full and satisfying film, most worthy of its place in cinema lore.

1 comment:

  1. Unlike other 1939 nominees, Gone with the Wind was not shown on television throughout the 1950s, when I would have seen the others. My first viewing was in 1961 during one of its theatrical re-releases. I am grateful for that, since the little black and white TV set would not have done it justice. I had of course heard all about the movie from my mother, who thought Vivien Leigh was amazing and like other women of the time, was infatuated with Clark Gable. Seeing it at age 14, the soap opera aspects of the story weren't as interesting to me, so the second half was a bit of a letdown.

    My most vivid memory of the huge production afterwards wasn't the railroad yard encampment of wounded soldiers or the burning of Atlanta. It was the shot of Scarlet on the hill of Tara saying "I'll never go hungry again." Her character and Vivien Leigh's iconic performance are the primary reason for its longevity in my mind.

    I also think that the success of the picture rests with the fact that Scarlet and Rhett are for the most part scheming hustlers. If the film focused on goody-goodies Ashley and Melanie, you would have had a snooze-fest.