One of the most popular and financially successful movies of all time, Gone with the Wind is a favorite for many film lovers around the world. Even for people like me who hadn't seen it, the title evokes images of war-torn Atlanta and Rhett Butler saying "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." Famous lines like that one and "tomorrow is another day" have moved into the popular culture and transcended the movie. This type of epic is the perfect choice for this marathon because it forces me to check out a picture nearly everyone has seen. Was I swept up with emotion by this sweeping melodrama? Let's get to the questions to learn the answer to this and other pressing concerns.
Gone with the Wind – Directed by Victor Fleming; Starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, and Olivia de Havilland
So, what's this story about?
Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) thinks her life at the Tara plantation in Georgia is tough because of her unrequited love for Ashley (Leslie Howard), an honorable guy who doesn't share the feelings. She has no idea what's in store. The Civil War begins, and the initial optimism for the South turns to horror when the Union starts destroying their homes. Scarlett is forced to flee Tara with her pregnant friend Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Ashley's wife. She vows to do whatever it takes to survive, and she gets her chance during the horrors of Reconstruction. Along for the ride is the smooth Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who has a connection with Scarlett but watches as she gets married twice without love. When Rhett and Scarlett finally decide to get together, the results are as torturous as the evils brought by the Carpetbaggers. A happy ending doesn't seem to be in the cards for anyone, especially the volatile couple.
Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
There's a two-fold answer to this question. First of all, Gone with the Wind is nearly four hours long. That's quite a time investment for any movie, especially one that doesn't fall into a must-see genre. This brings me to my second hesitation, which involves my general dislike of melodrama. I don't mind a good romance if the characters are interesting, but watching people suffer a series of tragedies is not my favorite pastime. My interest in the U.S. Civil War did make this film seem more attractive, especially due to its rarely seen Southern perspective on the war. However, sitting down for such an extended period to find out if Scarlett can find true happiness was a tall order. I had seen clips from this movie in the past on television, but it wasn't enough to draw me to a full viewing until this point.
Does the story hold up well today?
This ambitious film includes remarkable shots that remain striking today, especially the final image of Scarlett in front of Tara. Her powerful speech right before the intermission is another remarkable scene that ends the first act in epic fashion. These moments lose none of their positive impact more than 70 years later. Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be given to the depiction of race relations. The African-American characters are portrayed as happy slaves who care for nothing more than serving their masters. Although Sidney Howard and a team of uncredited writers toned down the racism of the novel, there are still serious issues within the script. Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar for an African-American as Mammy, and she deserves the acclaim. Her strong performance makes a thinly written character a lot more than a stereotype, but there's only so much she can do to combat the discrimination on display. The script is even nastier to Butterfly McQueen's Prissy, who spends the movie whining for apparent comic relief. McQueen was a supreme talent forced to play this type of role because it was the only option available at the time. I shouldn't be surprised to see racist attitudes in a 1939 release, but it still makes it tough to consider this one of the great films of all time.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Vivian Leigh does an excellent job as Scarlett O'Hara and carries the movie, which is no easy task. She plays a character that's frequently unlikable yet still understandable with each move. The film's point about Scarlett becoming cold due to the destructive power of Sherman's March is obvious, but Leigh never makes the evolution simple. Clark Gable is his typical charming self in the meaty role of Rhett Butler, who can't help but fall for Scarlett despite her interest in Ashley. Speaking of that noble guy, he's a dull character who's a good man, but it's never clear why Scarlett loves him. Howard is okay but falls way short of Gable's charisma, which makes her obsession seem foolish. Plus, he rejects her to marry his cousin Melanie even though he loves her. Ashley's a strange one. Olivia de Havilland does well as Melanie and makes her likable despite the obstacle she presents for Scarlett.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The first half of Gone with the Wind includes expansive shots of the Civil War, particularly the devastating aftermath of the battles. Shots like the one above are made for the big screen but remain powerful when viewed at home. Other moments shoot the characters in silhouette and resemble work by the German expressionists during the early 1920s. This film makes full use of color in a time when black and white was the norm. The problems truly appear during the second half, when the melodrama takes over the story. We learn that Rhett Butler should never open his mouth about any possible tragedy. At two separate points, he makes a crack about a terrible occurrence and then it happens immediately afterwards. The second moment should be horrifying but feels comical because of Butler's wise cracks. The final hour feels interminably long and slows down the pace way too much. The classic ending almost makes it worth the wait, but the series of tragedies feel sudden and become too ridiculous to give them a pass.
How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
In one sense, Gone with the Wild meets expectations and delivers an epic story with memorable scenes. Unfortunately, it's also uneven and isn't able to sustain the pace for the entire running time. I'm glad to have finally caught this beloved movie and mostly enjoyed watching it, but there were stretches that fell short. Part of the issue relates to my resistance to the over-the-top melodrama, but that's not the only concern. The story depicts the Southern people as noble souls tormented by the evil, uncaring Northern army. Reconstruction was likely very difficult, but I doubt that everyone who participated was corrupt. We're seeing history from the perspective of the South, so I understand that this film identifies with the main characters. This approach doesn't kill the movie, but it raises warning bells that only increase when combined with the clunky emotions. Regardless, it deserves a look for any movie fan looking to check out film making on a grand scale.
Gone with the Wind took home eight Oscars, including the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. If you're interested in the Academy Awards, you should participate in my contest to pick this year's winners! Just click on this link and fill out an easy-to-use online ballot.
Next week, I'll hang on for the ride with Steven Soderbergh as Gina Carano goes Haywire.