Gone With The Wind (1939), or Worse Than Paranormal Romance?

13 08 2009

We cannot forget the American classics, now can we? Today we take a look at the 1939 classic that might possibly be the biggest film we ever made as a nation. How big, you say? Well, it’s a whopping 238 minutes long and it has sold the most tickets out of any film in U.S. history. Yeah, that big. Gone With the Wind is the first true Hollywood blockbuster, in the sense that people watched it not only as entertainment, but as a cultural event. EVERYONE went to see this film, and it was the standard by which all other films were judged in the circle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was truly an epic, and it can go without saying that nothing of its size, scope, and popularity will ever be seen again in our aesthetically diverse nation. But the question isn’t whether or not it’s a classic; time has already made that decision. What I am looking for is whether or not it is any good.

The story is as dense as the movie is long. God damn, I don’t know where to begin. It all begins on a plantation in Georgia shortly before the Civil War. The daughter of the plantation’s owner, Scarlett O’Hara, is in a bit of a pickle. She doesn’t know who she loves. It’s a precarious situation that gets her in a lot of trouble. She finds herself the object of a certain young rogue’s affection one day as he visits the family. His name is Rhett Butler, and, while a bit of a social outcast for opposing war with the north, is not too bad looking, and her continued interest in him sparks a number of problems in her life as well as his. Most pressing is the fact that she also loves her friend Melanie’s beau, Ashley Wilkes (!). This is compounded when war officially breaks out between the North and the South and Ashley has to go and fight. This is even more compounded when Melanie’s younger brother Charles asks for her hand in marriage and she accepts (!!!!!!!!). This begins what turns out to be a long and complicated situation between the young men and women of this upper-crust Georgia community that lasts through the duration of the war and beyond. There is suffering on all sides of this drama about love, duty, and honor, but it mostly falls on the side of whoever receives Scarlett O’Hara’s affection.

I was both impressed and appalled by Gone With the Wind, a condition that, while not surprising, makes it difficult for me to praise the film outright. There are many, many things that it gets right; a deeply rich and powerful epic tone, a strong cast, wonderful direction, and a very alluring and charming aesthetic that I recognize as a Southern gentleman (not by choice). But certain things at the heart of the story, such as baffling and annoying character motivations and a propensity to read like a smutty romance novel, left me very confused as to how I felt about this genuine Hollywood powerhouse.

Certainly the cast must be mentioned. Vivian Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara with a grace unbefitting of such a dislikable character (more on that later). She lends to her an undercurrent of sweetness that the character didn’t seem to have when I read the description. It’s not something that can be seen by merely describing the events on the screen, but read first the synopsis of this film on the back of the box, then watch the last scene before the intermission, where she tearfully vows to never go hungry again; it isn’t as shallow as it sounds on paper. Clark Gable is good as Rhett Butler, but not amazing. His charisma is undeniable, and his charm is palpable as the young rogue from Charleston, but his delivery is often flat and needs a little tuning. Listen to this line:

It sounded like a gym teacher trying to teach a Sex Ed period. “And, uh, you need to be held and stuff. Now drop and give me fifty!” But his endurance and consistency of character during the 4 hour movie must be commended. At least he’s a beguiling Southern jerk ALL the time!

Hattie McDaniel was a very influential actress in her day who opened up the doors to many around her who were unable to do so before. She was a musician, a radio star, an actress, and a powerful voice in the battle for equal rights in America. But in Gone With the Wind, she is merely a servant, albeit an important servant named Mammy who keeps the O’Haras from falling apart at the seams. She was the first black person to ever win an Academy Award for this picture, and its easy to see why. She’s the real backbone of the family, and the real reason the plantation stayed afloat as long as it did. She was wise and faithful, an appealing combo to stupid whites who were too concerned fucking and killing each other to worry about putting food on the table. I enjoyed her character, and although time doesn’t look too kindly on it in 2009, it wasn’t easy to get into Hollywood with a dark complexion in 1939, and to quote Ms. McDaniel: “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.”

Selznick can sure direct a picture. I won’t prattle on the technical points too much because I don’t think anyone really cares about that too much when it comes to such a romantic period piece, but I do admire Selznick’s ability to sweep one up in the moment. The sets could have been painted with manure and the extras could have been scarecrows for all I know, but when the leads got to talking, nothing else mattered. He makes their story the most important in the world, even though it wasn’t, and made me feel like I cared about the struggles of well-off whites during the Civil War, which I didn’t. It’s his urgency to close in on them, I think. Look at how quickly he sweeps up their faces when they come on screen, and you’ll know what I mean.

Now, I also have some problems with this movie. First and foremost is the problem of Scarlett O’Hara. Mainly in the sense that she is an irredeemable bitch. I CANNOT STAND HER! She is a deeply flawed character, and I can go with that, but the movie feels flawed in its dealings with her. Everyone in her life (including herself) is subjected to horrors and sorrows because of her many thoughtless actions, but Gone With the Wind is determined to have us see her in a different light. Even at the very end of this long film we are asked to cut Scarlett some slack and cheer on her resolve, but I cannot help but feel a little like enabling an addict by doing so. Scarlett desperately wants attention, so I think that it would be in everyone’s best interest to just ignore her, including the audience.

I’m torn on Gone With the Wind. On the one hand, it’s a timeless classic about the struggles of a Southern family during one of the hardest times in our young nation’s history. On the other hand, it’s a trashy Harlequin romance novel, a who’s-porking-who in 1965. It’s seedy but unusually spick-and-span. I don’t know. My inner FILM SNOB tells me to give it a high rating based on all its finer points of cinematography and impressive acting talent, but my inner critic tells me to take some points off for its pointed audacity and lack of any moral compass it might allege to having. In the end, it was good, not great. A flawed epic in MGM’s heyday that signaled the beginning of the super-film, the sweeping blockbuster that would both delight and plague America for years to come. I give Gone With the Wind 7 mighty Mammys out of 10. Good night, Georgia!

Tomorrow I get down to business with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit!

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