[Note: this is the third film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
So, somehow I’ve reached the ripe old age of 40 without ever seeing Gone With The Wind, but don’t be alarmed; it’s but one of a numer of classics that are ‘blind spots’ for me, and I’ve rectified this particular situation by watching it over the Bank Holiday weekend while recovering from a bout of flu. First and foremost there’s no denying the film’s grandeur, which is manifest by a number of different factors: the running time (close to four hours including overture and intermission), the epic scale of the story, the quality of the production (including the set design and all those flamboyant costumes) and the way the use of Technicolor – still in its early days in 1939 – accentuates the drama of love and war, creating all those fiery red skies. In terms of plot, Gone With The Wind covers so much ground that comparitively films today seem far more conservative in their approach (oh, the irony). It’s a one-sided American Civil War film, a drama about the plantations of two families during that period, an intricate – and fairly satisfying – love story, a paean to land and the idea of home, and a wholly one-eyed and romanticised account of the lives of slaves and the southern way of life more generally.
What’s interesting is the film’s ability to be all these things and more, especially given its troubled production; you get the impression that it was a minor miracle that it all fit together successfully. Producer David O. Selznick spent a fortune, forced re-writes on Sidney Howard’s script before reverting to the original, fired the director and replaced him with Victor Fleming, while reports suggest Vivien Leigh was hard to work with at times and didn’t get on with co-star Leslie Howard at all, with whom she shares a few key romantic scenes. Then there’s the small factor of a long search for the female lead, and the near-two year delay while Selznick waited for his preferred leading man, Clark Gable, to become available. That was a good move, as it happens, as Gable is memorable as the wealthy cad and eyebrow juggler Rhett Butler, veering between the two extremes of cheeky hero and marital rapist. But Gone With The Wind is really notable for its women, and the character of Scarlett O’Hara in particular. Leigh’s petulant but strong-willed southern belle is eye catching, and she irritates and later inspires in equal measure; Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton is the heart of the movie even if the character is a little grey when stood next to the tempestuous, noisy Scarlett; and there’s Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, playing the house servant Mammy, one of several black stereotypes found in the film.
It’s been well documented elsewhere but it bears repeating here: time hasn’t been kind to Gone With The Wind. The depiction of happy slaves and the glorification of slavery is the most troubling factor, while the film’s fervent anti-Yankee, anti-Reconstruction sentimentality is surprising for its vehemence, as is its romantic idealisation of the south, here a verdant land of elegant young women, noble, innocent male suitors and little else of note. One wonders what watching black audiences made of Butterfly McQueen’s turn at the time – Malcolm X said later that it made him want to crawl under a rug – and there are elements of McDaniel’s award-winning performance that presumably induced mass cringing at the time, too. There are valid reasons, therefore, to really dislike Gone With The Wind, but for me fully resisting the charm of its central romance and romantic sub-plots – as well as the film’s desire to impress you with scale – feels impossible; perhaps if I was a black American, rather than a white English guy, I’d feel differently. Anyway, for what it’s worth I preferred the first half, which includes most of the iconic silhouette shots and red skies, and the story builds deliciously to a dramatic crescendo before the intermission. Butler and O’Hara escape a burning, war-torn Atlanta. Scarlett returns to her home at Tara, and all the while Max Steiner’s grandiose score hums along. At points such as this it’s one of those films that screams ‘look what cinema can be!’, and…well…I like that kind of thing a lot. For many reasons it still feels genuinely risky today: imagine a major studio making a four-hour-long romance, and then imagine them making one that ends with death, death and more death, as well as the male lead walking out on a still-defiant, never-broken female lead. Who on earth would green light a film like that?
Directed by: Victor Fleming.
Written by: Sidney Howard. Based on Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia De Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Evelyn Keyes, Thomas Mitchell.
Cinematography: Ernest Haller.
Editing: Hal C Kern, James E Newcom.
Music: Max Steiner.
Running Time: 221 minutes (without overture, intermission etc.).