Friday, July 12, 2019

Gone With the Wind (1939)

USA, 238 minutes
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
Writers: Margaret Mitchell, Sidney Howard, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten
Photography: Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes
Music: Max Steiner
Editors: Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom, Ernie Leadlay, Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Laura Hope Crews, Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell, Ona Munson, Ward Bond, George Reeves, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk

It's arguable that the two most significant American movies of the first half of the 20th century were D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which invented epic cinema, and Gone With the Wind, which fully implemented it in technicolor with sound. It's arguable, but I wouldn't want to make the argument, because they look to me too much like propaganda exercises for the valorization of the South and its slavery culture, busy with misleading historical reclamation projects. Or maybe I would prefer to argue that screwball comedies have more significance than epic cinema. Still, the ticket buyers have voted. That's Gone With the Wind even now sitting atop the list of all-time domestic grosses adjusted for inflation. It's the most commercially successful movie of all time, even taken out of circulation for decades after its initial release. (For the curious, the rest of that all-time top 10 goes Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic, The Ten Commandments [1956], Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)

I have never warmed much to Gone With the Wind, which I finally had a chance to see in the early '80s on VHS, and I like it less all the time as the country spirals backward in values. Alabama's Roy Moore, for one, specifically pointed to the South's slavery period as the last time America was great, and it seems as likely as anything (because who knows what that "great" is supposed to mean in "Make America Great Again") that's the era they're thinking of and clamoring so hard for. I find myself arguing all the time with the title cards in this ridiculous overwrought show: "Here in this pretty world," an early one burbles, "Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave ... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered." Dream for some, nightmare for many. I'm sure you can guess my complaints. As an exercise, as a remedy, and to maintain the equilibrium I need for this movie, I decided to focus on what I think is good in Gone With the Wind.

First that's Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, notably Gable, and also the chemistry between the two, which is lively. Gable is swaggering around, laughing big from deep in his chest, and having a ball as the roguish Rhett Butler, and why not? He's getting all the good lines. "No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly," he says to Scarlett O'Hara (Leigh) early. "You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how." At the end of the movie, of course, Gable gets one of the most famous lines in the history of movies—"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"—but I'm convinced it's famous more for the daring use of a swear word in 1939. It's otherwise about the fourth time in the movie we've seen the plot development. And with the open ending we're given, it's probably going on still.

Vivien Leigh is very good too—overplaying, but that's in the nature of things in this picture. The main white women in this movie are portrayed by players I have a hard time recalling. Olivia de Havilland, as the saccharine saintly Mrs. Wilkes, was someone whose face I could never recall until finally running across 1949's The Heiress, where she is splendid, though playing much the same part (as she often did). Leigh is even harder for me to fix—I don't recognize her in the screenshot above and I forgot that was her in A Streetcar Named Desire—but she's easy and fun to hate as a thoughtless narcissistic flirt in the first half of Gone With the Wind, and then she's convincing enough as a cunning survivor in the second half. She's never quite likable but I count that as good.

Gone With the Wind is also a vertiginously sumptuous costume drama, reveling in its largesse of budget and glorying in brilliant use of technicolor even as it squats in its remote place in history. Many Americans these days don't even know who was fighting in the Civil War or when it took place or really very much about it at all (hence our present doom to repeat it). But wow and oh boy can these people put on a costume drama. One of many brilliant strokes is showing Scarlett O'Hara in mourning-dress dancing. Never mind her succession of marriages which end in dead husbands. That's just another ridiculous plot point and overplayed aspect of her character (so blame Margaret Mitchell maybe). But even if it were there just for the sake of showing that dance, it's worth it. Or, if not worth it (because I'm not sure anything about this movie is actually worth the historical revisions), then it's certainly astonishing in the execution. Leigh or her stunt dancer throws herself into the moment, cutting a fine figure in black capering up and down the line. It's nearly as good a use of color as The Wizard of Oz, released that same year.

The extra-wide crane shot of the dead and dying in Atlanta is stunning. The entire fall of Atlanta is spectacular. Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is hilariously obtuse about the joint love affair for him shared by Scarlett and his wife, but I'm sure it's not intended to be funny. Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, and Oscar Polk are notably good as slaves, and it also has to be counted a good thing that so many African Americans were hired for the movie, even though they had to play such demeaning roles. Some of them even went on to good careers. And, much like The Birth of a Nation indeed, Gone With the Wind has a very sure sense for how to make a movie big. It's not just the long musical interludes punctuating it beginning, middle, and end, but an even harder sense to pin down exactly that makes it feel giant and immersive, open and engaging. You know you're in for a big popcorn time, even still, from the moment that giant title goes swooshing majestically by.

But then, soon enough, over and over, there I am arguing again with the title cards and amazed at how thoroughly slavery itself and all its evils have been whitewashed out of this. The tragedies here are the tragedies of the oppressors losing the tools of their oppression. The North is cast as the barbarian, burning, slashing, and raping, and it is "carpetbaggers"—fat and sassy African Americans, note—who amount to the real evil of the period. It's as infuriating in its way as The Birth of a Nation, made even more so because I'm not sure Gone With the Wind has been as thoroughly debunked or condemned yet. Both are made so well, and are such landmarks of movie history, they will always need to be accompanied by teams of politically correct explainers. At least until Americans start to take an interest in their own history, whenever that happens.

1 comment:

  1. This idea that Yankee "carpetbaggers" were the bad guys is common racist coin where I come from. No doubt significantly b/c of this flick. Nonetheless, as a kid, have to admit I was taken in by all the technicolor historical pageantry.