Gone with the Wind (1939)
Release Date: December 19th, 1939 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Victor Fleming Actors: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Rand Brooks, Ward Bond, Ann Rutherford
ook for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered… a civilization gone with the wind.” This resounding statement holds true for this style of filmmaking as well. No other movie has had quite the impact, the influence, or the epic feel (perhaps as only a nearly four-hour-long production could create) of this unmistakable masterpiece. Its blend of drama, romance, adventure, comedy, and tragedy woven through the American Civil War is bold and moving, spanning historical wartime occurrences, including the Battle of Gettysburg, Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign cannonading, and the Reconstruction. The characters are as vivid and engaging as the glowing cinematography, the grand costumes, and the enormous sets, studded with thousands of extras. Gone too are the days of overtures, intermissions, entr’actes, exit music, Max Steiner’s regal score, and certainly the sweeping period piece, split into segments for audiences to more easily digest.
At the O’Hara Plantation in Georgia, young Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is shocked to hear from her father (Thomas Mitchell) that the nearby Twelve Oaks plantation owner Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) plans to marry his own cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), as is common practice in the family. Scarlett is in love with Ashley, but he doesn’t seem to know it. Despite being able to get any man in the area, she’s fixated on the one she can’t have. At the Wilkes’ barbecue the following day, Scarlett goes about jealously drumming up trouble by flirting with all the beaux at the massive gathering, but it doesn’t stop the inevitable union of Ashley and Melanie.
And then there’s Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the dishonorable, scandalous, supremely sarcastic scoundrel, who thinks more clearly and speaks more openly than any other man. It’s evident, thanks to his confident, biting words and unwavering posture, that he’s the real prize at the party – and a perfect match for the calculating, conniving Scarlett. Nevertheless, the O’Hara girl begrudgingly marries Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks), Melanie’s sister, just as war is declared. Her husband dies of pneumonia shortly thereafter, making her a particularly immature young widow, anxious to shed her black, disingenuous mourning garments for lively party dresses. She travels to Atlanta to stay with Melanie, primarily for a chance to be closer to the family she couldn’t be a part of, where she is once again reunited with Rhett, now a captain and blockade runner for profit, caring little for the cause or patriotism the rest of the Southern gentlemen so strongly support.
Although Scarlett still won’t give up loving Ashley, she promises to watch after Melanie, which becomes problematic when the frail wife becomes ill late in her pregnancy. As the Yankees move closer and the capital burns, Scarlett begs Rhett to take her and Melanie to her home plantation of Tara back in Georgia, even though it too is likely surrounded by the enemy. She returns to famine, destruction, death, and a delusional father; but with the help of her two sisters and a newfound authoritarian demeanor, she steadily rebuilds Tara as the war comes to a close. Scarlett and Melanie wait for the homecoming of Major Wilkes, while carpetbagger profiteers invade the Reconstruction. When taxes on Tara threaten to devour the property, Scarlett marries her sister’s beau for the money necessary to save it. Rebellion against the North’s civil and political encroachment, historical meddling, social fortuitousness, ill-gotten gains, and the unconquerable nature of true love will eventually see Rhett and Scarlett together, destined to unite despite the admission of convenience, opportunity, and spite.
The back-and-forth repartee between Rhett and Scarlett is phenomenally entertaining; it’s refreshing to see the conceited, assuredly calm, dominant controller persuasively seduce the naïve, selfish, childish, tantrum-prone, deceitful juvenile. It’s a playboy maneuver that momentarily straightens her out and forces her to befittingly mature. They’re a flawless cinematic pair, with Rhett’s charm never diminishing and Scarlett’s character gradually strengthening. Perhaps her Irish decent makes her prioritize the owning of property above all else, as a symbol of status, accomplishment, and power, revealing her unscrupulousness in the face of relationships. As she falls from spoiled abundance to starving destitution and hard physical labor, and then perfidiously back to affluence, she becomes much more amusingly scheming and compelling, not surprisingly unable to gain respect so much as preserve fear. Even guilt can’t quite latch onto Scarlett’s conscience, no matter the level of despicability she succumbs to. This gives way to a superbly appropriate climax (a scene nearly as significant and famous as the film itself); one in which Scarlett’s greediness and stubbornness combat Rhett’s irrepressible, misplaced affections. Their relationship is ultimately a continual battle for emotions neither one can obtain or possess for the other – which leads to a startlingly tragic deterioration for them both and a sudden, sadly tardy cognizance for Scarlett.
While there’s minor controversy from the infamous marital rape scene, and larger criticisms toward the questionable depiction of slavery, which shows them to be well-treated employee equivalents with contentedness and routine faithfulness to their owners, Hattie McDaniel decorously went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of house servant Mammy – becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. “Gone with the Wind” also ended up being honored with a record-breaking number of awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, to go along with its unmatched ticket sales and box-office success. Highly regarded as one of the greatest of all motion pictures, it’s a palatial spectacle definitely worthy of such praise; nothing about it is ordinary or bland, and the lengthy running time is not as tiresome as it is entertainingly nourished. Hopefully, since David O. Selznick’s vision resulted in getting everything right, Margaret Mitchell’s monumental story of the old South will never be theatrically adapted again.
– Mike Massie