For a movie centered around a conniving woman constantly angling to land the man she can never have, with supporting characters that include former slaves who seem to miss the good ol’ days, “Gone with the Wind” has managed to remain a critical favorite in the 70 years since its original release. Some might take issue with the film’s stereotyping or its soapiness, but time has been kind to an epic that more than one critic has called “the ultimate Hollywood movie.”
When “GWTW” first opened in December 1939, it was “Titanic” and “Twilight” combined, times 10. Not only was producer David Selznick bringing to the screen an exceedingly popular novel — speculation on who would play the lead roles was a much-discussed topic for quite some time before contracts were signed — but he was also mounting a hugely lavish and expensive production.
Fans were bracing themselves for disappointment while Hollywood observers sharpened their knives for what looked to be a financial flop. And then they saw the movie.
“In attempting to convey on paper some adequate conception of what David O. Selznick’s production of ‘Gone with the Wind’ is like,” gushed The Hollywood Reporter, “one is confronted with the discouraging fact that there are no words which can truly portray something which is at one and the same time an overwhelming, emotional experience, the peak milestone in motion picture achievement … and the living incarnation of a group of human beings who have become the intimates of millions through the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s book.”
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Slideshow: Black women in film Other movie trade publications were equally enthusiastic. The Hollywood Spectator’s front-page headline read, simply, “David Selznick’s Film is World’s Greatest,” while Showmen’s raved “There’s everything — drama that tears at one’s emotions, adventure that is thrilling and exciting, comedy in appropriate places: all presented with such realism that it becomes a production unsurpassed in screen history, meriting history-making grosses at the box office. It is terrific, with absolute perfection in every phase of its construction.”
The Exhibitor called it “one of the greatest celluloid masterpieces in the history of motion pictures” and Motion Picture Daily declared “GWTW” “the biggest, the greatest and the best” while Variety noted, “The result amply justifies the vast patience, the confidence, the showman’s faith and courage, the time consumed and even the soaring expense which David O. Selznick put behind his production labors to do the thing with perfection and pride of craft.”
Early reviews never mention race
The Motion Picture Herald, apparently without irony, called “GWTW” “a bigger and better ‘Birth of a Nation’ — a kindred triumph for this day and time.” The comparison of “GWTW” and “Birth” is somewhat inescapable; D.W. Griffith’s controversial and inflammatorily racist silent masterpiece, which also deals with the Civil War and its aftermath, was a direct antecedent in both the scale of its production and its box-office popularity. But whatever complaints one might have about the treatment of black characters in “GWTW,” producer Selznick was at least more sensitive than Griffith on the subject, deleting references to the Ku Klux Klan from the “GWTW” screenplay and toning down some of the race-based humor.
None of the early reviews in the mainstream press touched on these issues, however, instead gushing about the film’s scale and sweep. Some critics tempered their praise: Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times asked, “Is it the greatest motion picture ever made? Probably not, although it is the greatest motion mural we have seen and the most ambitious filmmaking venture in Hollywood’s spectacular history.” And while Liberty gave “GWTW” four out of four stars, its reviewer confessed, “Not that this filming of Margaret Mitchell’s novel isn’t stupendous, that it isn’t done with tremendous attention to detail. But it never moves you deeply.”
Over the years, “GWTW” proved to be a cash cow for MGM in one re-release after another, and critics’ adoration of the film remained strong. The film’s 15th anniversary return to theaters in 1954 earned another round of superlatives — the Los Angeles Times called it a “true film classic,” while the Los Angeles Daily News declared, “‘Gone with the Wind,’ despite 15 years of later progress in motion pictures, remains an artistic and technical triumph of high order.”
A 1961 re-release, marking the centennial of the Civil War, continued the lovefest, with the Los Angeles Examiner calling “GWTW” “the best picture of 1961. Or 1960. Or any year before that, back to its own year of 1939, when it was initially shown, and for which it won the Academy Award as the best of all productions. Put all the pictures nominated for this year’s Academy Award on the scales. Put ‘GWTW’ in to balance the lot of them and, in my opinion, ‘GWTW’ would still outweigh them. I envy the young people seeing ‘GWTW’ for the first time today. It’s an experience like the first time one sees Paris. Or first hears ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ or first looks at the Winged Victory.”
Time magazine agreed, noting that the film was “as great a show today as it was 20 years ago, a magnificent piece of popular entertainment, undoubtedly the greatest soap opera ever written. It has war, rape, murder, conflagration, greed, hate, love, scandal, starvation, childbirth, costumes, nudity, whores, carpetbaggers, slathers of sentiment, dollops of comedy and the burning conviction that all this wonderful flummery is terribly real and exciting and important.”
That same article also pointed out, “There are, of course, a few anachronisms. The Jim Crow humor, acceptable to most audiences in 1939, will embarrass the average moviegoer today.” As the years passed, this issue came up more and more; when the movie was reissued in 1967 in a 70mm print (that infamously cropped the original image to fit on anamorphic screens), the Wall Street Journal noted that several “Negro” organizations had raised objections to the film.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther—who would soon step down after decades at the paper, when “Bonnie & Clyde” made him realize he no longer understood contemporary cinema — tried to patch over any such complaints: “One may, however, tend to be hypersensitive in this race-conscious day of the patronizing attitude toward Negroes taken by the whites in the south. And sympathy with the leading characters may be affected as a consequence. But one is constantly reminded by the elaborate ante-bellum atmosphere and the candor of the individual attitudes, Negroes’ as well as whites’, that this is the unfolding of a romance that has merged into the character of legend and even myth. One should feel no more discomfort than one feels in hearing a Stephen Foster song.”
For their part, African-American film scholars don’t march in lockstep regarding their opinions of “GWTW.” On the one hand, there’s Lisa Anderson, whose book title “Mammies No More” gives you a fair idea of her approach to the subject. On the other is Donald Bogle who, in his landmark book “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films,” wrote that “the black-white relationships were probably closer to the real ones of ante-bellum America than any ever before presented in the movies. … the really beautiful aspect of this film was not what was omitted but what was ultimately accomplished by the black actors who transformed their slaves into complex human beings.”
With each new generation comes a new interpretation of the film. For the 50th anniversary of “GWTW,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution film critic Eleanor Ringel wrote a moving memoir of seeing it as a pre-teen and weeping all the way through it, and then revisiting it in college: “A genteel racism is part and parcel of the movie’s romanticism. I could love Mammy and Big Sam all I wanted, admire their wisdom and bravery and humor, but they bought into the slave system as cheerfully as their white owners. The fact was, Mammy had a mind of her own but no name of her own. So I made a deal with the movie: I would never forget its racist subtext. But I would also keep in mind that watching ‘GWTW’ and worrying about its civil rights and wrongs was useless. It was like evaluating ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ solely in terms of its Arab stereotypes.” Ultimately, Ringel writes, she still watches the movie — and she still cries.
That’s pretty much the critical consensus: You can pick apart “Gone with the Wind” from a racial or feminist or historical or other academic perspective, but ultimately, you’re left with a thrilling, romantic, funny and stirring film that holds up after multiple decades and multiple viewings.
As the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote in 2006, “A critic-proof movie if there ever was one: it isn’t all that good, but somehow it’s great. … No one I know of has yet solved the secret of this 1939 film’s apparently timeless appeal.”
Alonso Duralde is a movie critic in Los Angeles. His book, “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas,” will be published by Limelight Editions in Fall 2010.
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