Monday, 4 April 2011

"Gone with the Wind" (1939)

"Why does a girl have to be so silly to catch a husband?"

"Gone with the Wind"

Director: Victor Fleming (won the Oscar)
Running Time: 3 hours,  58 minutes
Random Fact: The "hunt for Scarlett O'Hara" was allegedly the most competitive casting race in Hollywood history
Based on the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)

Vivien Leigh .... Scarlett O'Hara (won the Oscar)
Clark Gable ..... Captain Rhett Butler (Oscar nominated)
Leslie Howard ..... Ashley Wilkes
Olivia de Havilland .... Melanie Hamilton
Hattie McDaniel .... Mammy (won the Oscar)

Also won the Oscar for: Best Art Direction,  Best Cinematography,  Best Film Editing,  Best Writing , an Honorary Oscar for  its pioneering use of colour, Best Technical Achievement and, of course, Best Picture

Gone with the Wind is justifiably one of, if not the, most famous movie of all time. Based on the 1936 bestseller by Margaret Mitchell, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, Gone with the Wind was an epic achievement, both technologically and artistically in its day. At Oscar season, it predictably swept the board, winning ten Academy Awards. It was not just the longest movie ever made in sound when it first premiered in 1939, running to three hours and forty-four minutes, but it was not only one of the first movies shot in colour. So incredible and so expensive were the techniques used to shoot Gone with the Wind that the Academy created the Oscar for cinematography in its honour and for the next two decades it was remained the most visually stunning examples of technicolor too. It was so commercially successful that as well as being released in 1939 and running in most world cinemas well into 1941, it was re-released in cinemas in America, Europe, South America, Australia and Britain in 1947 (when its message of society adapting in the aftermath of a devastating war was especially relevant), 1954, 1961 (for the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War), 1967, 1971, 1989  (its fiftieth anniversary) and 1998. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the highest grossing domestic movie in American history.

Gone with the Wind tells the story of a spoiled Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara (played by British actress Vivien Leigh), and her experience of ten years of American history, beginning when she attends a high society barbeque (above) at a neighbour's plantation on the day the American Civil War begins. Manipulative, brazen, deceitful and often spiteful, Scarlett O'Hara is also flirtatious, ruthless and monumentally self-absorbed. Yet, somehow, she is undoubtedly the heroine everyone is cheering for throughout Gone with the Wind's four hour extravaganza. As romance after romance fails and the lavish lifestyle of the Southern upper-classes is swept away when the South loses the Civil War in 1865, Scarlett proves that whilst she is a woman likely to hurl herself onto her bed weeping for days when she doesn't get her own way about what dress to wear to a party, when it comes to the major catastrophes of life, she is definitely the ultimate survivor. Surveying the ruin of her homeland in the aftermath of the Civil War, Scarlett vows that if she has "to lie, steal, cheat or kill" she will overcome the poverty and chaos which has swallowed up the life of wealth and privilege she once enjoyed. She vows she will hold on to the family's plantation at Tara and despite the fact she claims to find them useless and irritating, she fulfils all four of her vows in order to keep her family safe from the invading Yankee armies, famine, defeat, mental illness, political turmoil and crippling taxation.

In recent times, Gone with the Wind has, quite rightly, been criticised for some of its attitudes towards race. Many have accused it of ignoring the less pleasant attitudes of Southern resilience in the years after the Civil War - chief amongst it the emergence of the dreaded Ku Klux Klan which, in the novel, Scarlett's second husband is an early member of. The novel has been especially ridiculed for presenting a relatively benign, even supportive, view of the institution of slavery in the pre-war South and it suggests that the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves was not in the best interests of the Southern black population. Criticisms of this sort certainly do have their place. It is a good thing that we can now look back on movies made in the 1930s about events in the 1860s and 1870s and see that much of what past societies felt and thought is not worthy of repitition today. Yet, it would be wrong to see Gone with the Wind as vindictively racist in the same way as other "epic" movies based on the American Civil War, chief amongst them being The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is more clueless than vicious. And set against the novel's occasionally eye-wateringly inappropriate comments about black people, we should remember that Gone with the Wind was one of the first movies in Hollywood to give major and psychologically credible parts to black actors. Indeed, Hattie McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her role as the O'Hara family's chief slave, Mammy. She was the only African American woman to win an Oscar until Halle Berry in 2001. On Oscar night, Hattie gave one of the most beautiful and heartfelt speeches upon receiving the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, saying, "Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you."

For me, Gone with the Wind is really a story about survival. There are moments in the movie which are heart-breakingly beautiful to look at, the casting of every part is near-perfect, especially the four leads - Scarlett O'Hara, smuggler and ladies' man Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), book-loving Southern aristocrat Ashley Wilkes (another British actor, Leslie Howard) and the demure, gentle and devout Melanie Hamilton, Ashley's wife (Olivia deHavilland.) Gone with the Wind is a wonderful, epic movie about a  lead character whose actions are often thoroughly worthy of condemnation, but who somehow always manages to be admirable. Even, weirdly, likeable. It is a fantastic love story, a great war movie, one of the most magnificent costume dramas of all time, a flawless adapation of a bestselling novel and a moment of cinema history. I can still remember the first time I saw it, by accident, on TCM late one night, whilst channel hopping. I knew it had been my late grandmother's favourite movie but I was definitely under the impression it was campy, melodramatic, long and boring. Not that they're words that usually leave my mouth - but, I was wrong. Take an afternoon and a massive amount of popcorn and it's unlikely that Gone with the Wind will disappoint. 

1 comment:

  1. People do not understand that what we now consider racist is just how it was back then. If they had not shown it that way, then it would have been too sanitized and completely unrealistic. I think the character of Mammy is one of the strongest female film personalities of all time. Even though Mammy has no civil rights for most of the film, she is a person of impeachable character and dignity, a pillar of strength for Scarlett and for the rest of the family. While she herself is a woman of honor, maintaining very high standards for herself (and those whom she loves), she is nevertheless the only person besides Rhett who sees Scarlett for what she really is but loves her anyway. Mammy is the last word in class as far as I am concerned. Women like her held everything together after the War.


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