Before attacking the film version of “Gone with the Wind” for its racial and gender politics, it bears noting that almost as much time has lapsed between today and the film’s original release as had lapsed between that original release and the end of the Civil War. And it can be argued that American society underwent greater changes between 1939 and 2009 than it did between 1865 and 1939.
All of which is to say, if you can cut “GWTW” some slack for not being as enlightened as we are today, the movie remains one of the greatest products of the Hollywood studio system. In a year that remains the high-water mark for mainstream American filmmaking, the saga of Scarlett O’Hara stands atop a very high mountain.
To mark the occasion of the 70th anniversary of “GWTW,” I watched the film again for the first time in years and was struck by its excellence in everything from the writing to the performances to the technical craftsmanship. When you stop to realize that feature films had sound for only about a dozen years up to that point — and color for even less — the achievements of producer David O. Selznick and his extraordinary team of artists become even more impressive.
Let’s start with the performances, though — the role of Rhett Butler was all but written for Clark Gable, and he delivers some of the finest acting of his career. We see the cynicism as well as the fragile heart that cynicism protects, and we believe him as a badass and as a lover, as a rogue and as a gentleman.
Matching him every step of the way is Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. In her mid-20s during production, Leigh convincingly ages the character from flirty teen debutante to cold-hearted businesswoman. Just before intermission, when she vows to “lie, steal, cheat or kill” to survive in the post-war South, we’re convinced she means it. (And, as the second half of the film reveals, she certainly does.) Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes — the latter saved from being a two-dimensional goody-goody thanks to Olivia de Havilland’s empathetic acting — are the original steel magnolias.
The casting remains effective all the way down the line — director Victor Fleming (with help from his predecessors George Cukor and Sam Wood) fills the movie with performers distinctive enough to make an impact with just a few moments on screen. From the holier-than-thou sneer of Alicia Rhett’s India Wilkes to Ona Munson’s hard-bitten kindness as the notorious madam Belle Watling, the characters of “GWTW” stay in the memory even if they’re in the movie for less than a few minutes.
A successful love story and war yarn
Another reason that “GWTW” still works so well is that it allows itself to be many things. It’s a melodramatic bodice-ripper of a love story, but it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Just think of the shot of the wounded and dying, as far as the eye can see, at the train depot, or of the look on Scarlett’s face when she watches a man undergo leg amputation surgery with no anesthetic, or the madness that takes over Scarlett’s father Gerald (Thomas Mitchell) after the death of his wife. (1939 was a good year for Mitchell—in addition to his unforgettable turn in “GWTW,” he also scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for John Ford’s “Stagecoach.”)
It’s also a very funny movie: Hattie McDaniel was a master of the “Hmmph!” decades before Niecy Nash was born, and the team of screenwriters (Sidney Howard, with uncredited assists from Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling, among others) inject humor into some of the film’s darkest moments. As Rhett helps Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy escape a burning Atlanta, Scarlett jumps out of the carriage to go back and lock the door of Aunt Pittypat’s house. When a wounded Ashley (Leslie Howard) is being tended to after reportedly hiding out in Belle Watling’s notorious establishment, Mrs. Meade just wants to grill her husband about the bordello’s interior décor.
That mixture of tones manifests itself in the film’s look, as well. There’s no shortage of bright, outdoor scenes at Tara or in Atlanta, but many of Scarlett and Rhett’s most memorable encounters take place in rooms where the sun gets filtered through the slats of window shades. At other moments, characters exist in silhouette (as when Scarlett and Prissy deliver Melanie’s baby, or in the iconic shots of Scarlett standing beneath a gnarled tree) or cast such enormous shadows that one’s eye is drawn to the shadows and not to the people casting them (the scene with Scarlett and Melanie at the hospital).
I find that, as with any significant work of fiction, “GWTW” is a film that audiences experience differently at different times in the their lives. When I was younger, I thought Scarlett was a monster and Melanie was a simp, but adulthood, time and life experiences have changed my perspective on both characters. Certainly part of the film’s enduring legacy is that it features a complex lead character who so often does the wrong thing for the right reason (and even, occasionally, the right thing for the wrong reason).
It’s also one of the few films of the era that features a bold female lead character and gives her an equally strong man with whom to clash. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other actresses played tough, determined Depression-era heroines, but how many of their leading men can you remember?
Granted, “Gone with the Wind” does allow itself to get a little misty-eyed about the end of slavery, and its point of view on the Reconstruction is unapologetically Southern. And yes, there’s the matter of a possible marital rape in the film’s final act. These are topics that should be discussed and analyzed in looking back at the movie, but they do not, in and of themselves, rob “GWTW” from much of its impact as a drama and as a spectacle.
The fact that people are still debating the fine points of a movie seven decades old speaks volumes about the endurance of this American classic — I have no doubt the debate, and the endurance, will still be in full flower in another 70 years.