07 August 2008

Gone With The Wind (1939)

d. Victor Fleming. United States. 238 mins.

Surprising, really, that a 4-hour-long film with an absolutely unlikable viewpoint character can still be so entertaining. David O. Selznick's Gone With The Wind (let's face it, although he was the producer, it's really his brainchild more than anyone else) is an Epic Movie, in every sense of those capitalized words. It's one of those American treasures whose elements rest in our collective consciousness, from the quotes "As God is my witness..." to "Frankly, my dear, ... " and from the images of a glowing amber sky above the Tara plantation to Sherman's fiery ravages of Atlanta. Selznick poured everything he had into its production, and, as has been noted elsewhere more eloquently, considering all the crew members he ripped to shreds as they were making it, it's amazing that the film works at all.

Its successes are obvious: strong and convincing acting across the board; watchful and thoughtful direction (from Selznick's input and from the film's nominal director, Victor Fleming, who amazingly also released The Wizard of Oz in the same year); and gorgeous cinematography that gives the viewer some stupendous images to savor. Its problems, however, are equally obvious. On a basic cinematic level its clearest problem is its length. Gone With The Wind is long enough to be two movies, a point exemplified by its clean-cutting intermission. Most people agree the first half of the movie is its better half; personally, by the middle of the second half I think people are just becoming a little restless and so they're looking back fondly on the exciting elements in the first part, which contain romance, war, humor, and tragedy without the syrupy melodrama of the second half. One wonders if its generous length is necessary merely to give the self-centered bitch Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) her comeuppance. The length does allow characters to flow in and out of the film, none more entertaining than the anti-hero Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a blatant scoundrel who is quick-witted, dashing, and morally complex. Gable's spectacular performance allows Butler to become someone the audience can root for, or at least side with, as everything seems to go to hell.

Gone With The Wind is often rebuked for two other conspicuously troubling elements: its romanticism and sympathy of the "Old South" and its laissez-faire (and frequently benevolent) attitude toward slavery. There's no doubt the film is pure Southern melodrama (the book was, too), and I suppose it's possible to view Gone With The Wind as a glorification text. Yet, viewing it almost seventy years after its release, I can't help but feel much of its entertainment value is derived in how ridiculous the pompous, aristocratic South seemed – a land of accidental arrogance and unrequited entitlement where the women are prissy and the men are, well, equally prissy. I wanted to slap Scarlett as much as I wanted to slap the effete Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the man she thinks she loves. The only characters who make it through the whole movie as tolerable and enjoyable are Rhett Butler (Gable should have won an Oscar) and the plantation's housekeeper Mammy (the scene-stealing Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black American win an Oscar). McDaniel's role lacks depth, but she was able to rise above Hollywood's otherwise stereotypical and goofy depiction of black Americans in the 1930s.

To the issue of slavery: I'm not suggesting it should have been left out of the movie, far from it. It's historically and horrifically accurate that slavery and racism were commonplace, tolerated, fought for, and endorsed during the era covered in Gone With The Wind. Selznick did try to clean up the script to remove patently offensive elements that weren't necessary to the story. (The Ku Klux Klan was written out, left only to be referenced as a "political meeting.") What I think people do suggest, and what I personally believe, is that when the topic of slavery and racism comes up in the film, maybe the actors and actresses portraying the slaves could have looked a little less jovial about the whole thing. (Still, Gone With The Wind is nowhere near as gung-ho racist as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.)

It's a great movie, I think, although unfortunately its cumbersome length makes it too unwieldy to revisit on a whim. (It belongs in that select group of films that requires advanced planning for its watching.) That inaccessibility also knocks it down a little bit in my eyes. Of course there's no doubt the film will continue to be a mainstay of American cinema for years to come, and although I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it an utter masterpiece, it is undoubtedly iconic and, flaws considered, one of the grandest spectacles produced in film. If you can make it through until the end, there's a reason Rhett Butler putting Scarlett O'Hara in her place has gone down as one of the greatest lines in film.


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