Gone With the Wind (1939)

Let’s face it.  We live in an era where the mainstream is something to be feared, and to like the blockbuster is to admit to being the very same “non-person” we all fear becoming.  It’s important to look smart and cultured, and so we can’t admit to anything that makes us look too sheltered or nationalistic.  We embrace uniqueness or obscurity because it makes us feel like modern day Columbuses…no, strike that.  Columbus is too politically incorrect.  We embrace uniqueness or obscurity because it makes us feel like we’ve discovered some new way to live, our own way, and we find our identities in that.  Because of this, we can’t just agree that Gone With the Wind was great.  Sure, we recognize it for its achievements.  We’ll reference it when we talk about the great movies.  It is certainly on our radar when it comes to a study of Hollywood.  But to say it’s among the best movies of all time?  We can’t do that anymore.  It’s just not a unique-enough stance.

That, I think, is why the most popular movie ever made is also the most critically polarizing movie ever made.  The American Film Institute (who focuses more on Hollywood and the films that impacted it) said that Gone With the Wind was the #6 greatest American film of all time.  But, Sight and Sound determined that it was all the way down at number 97 (I think…I might have lost count).  Time magazine didn’t even rank Gone With the Wind in its list of the top 100 films, while Hollywood Reporter placed it at number 15.  What are we supposed to make of all this?

Simple answer: whatever you want.  If you don’t like the movie, then you have a lot of very smart movie-lovers on your side.  If you do like the movie, then you have a lot of very smart movie-lovers on your side.  I love the movie, though I do agree that it has some real weaknesses.  We’ll discuss the weaknesses and the strengths in this review.

With the weaknesses, people will often cite the fact that the film can, at times, be politically incorrect.  This is just the typical ramblings of people who find art to be illegitimate the second it shows something they disagree with (they are also the first people to throw stones when someone complains about immorality in films).    Or, they cite the fact that they don’t like the seemingly pointless and boring half-hour in the last third of the movie, the part leading up to that spectacular ending.  I would be quicker to agree with the cynics there.  The movie is fun and well-paced for the first two hours, and then suddenly decides to become relatively boring.  But, even that can be relatively vindicated when one comes to experience the reward at the end of the boredom: the movie’s climax is one of the finest in cinema, and it is certainly worth the wait.

Ultimately, for me, the weaknesses are mostly visual; which is strange considering the fact that it was once considered one of the most visually stunning films ever created.  I don’t want to address this too in-depth; for one, because this is supposed to be a review of why this film is great and, for two, because I’ve already addressed this relatively well in my review of The Samurai Trilogy.  Victor Fleming’s use of set pieces and backdrops wouldn’t be a problem for me (remember the cables in Adam’s Rib?), but they become a problem when he decided to use them in an epic film that depended, first and foremost, on its vastness and depth.  Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind is unable to live up to its scope because of its lack of depth-of-field.  Remember that all themes of a film absolutely must be accompanied by a fitting image, because that is the medium.  When the image fails to live up, the movie collapses.

But, Gone With the Wind doesn’t collapse because there are so many strengths that work to hold it up.  Just like how the end of the film works to compensate for the film’s slow third act, there are plenty of factors that work to buttress the film despite its failings.  Even the visual component has its times when it is saved by a beautiful scene, a fantastic picture, or great camera movement.

Let’s look at a couple examples.  It is important to remember that the film is about the American Camelot, a romantic nation unto itself that is on the one hand, responsible for the birth of the the nation in which we now live, and on the other hand, a nation whose weaknesses pulled it away from progress.  It is a land now “gone with the wind.”  The camera had to show this; the director and cinematographer had to create a visual element that demonstrated this special and important theme.  They did this by frequently using low light and red light.  Many of the films sequences, particularly those that show the world of the South slowly dying away are filmed within the context of a sunset.  The reds and oranges flush out the picture, not only making those scenes between Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable romantically dim, but showing us a land on which the sun was metaphorically setting.  These are some of the most beautiful sequences in the film, despite the fact that they are pitted against a faux-backdrop that in the context of the film seems inequitable.

Then, there is one of the most haunting and spectacularly filmed sequences in American film history, when Vivien Leigh’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, walks through the streets of Atlanta to see the carnage that has enveloped the city.  She’s already in a rush because she is trying to find a doctor to help her deliver a baby.  She trips over bloodied victims and is blocked by rushing passerbys.  Her frantic nature grows with each passing second as it seems more and more helpless.  As she enters the open street, we see writhing soldiers at her feet.  At first it seems like quite a few, more than several, and we see the anguish on her face at their sight.  But, as she moves forward, the camera moves upward and backward, and we get to see—one person at a time, then five, then ten people, then more at a time—that the entire frame is full of hundreds of aching and broken soldiers, lying in their own blood in the dirty streets.  She is a dot in the middle of carnage.  And we, like she, are overwhelmed at the sight.

Certainly, while the film has its visual shortcomings, it has some amazing visuals that almost make us forget about the bad ones.  But, this is only part, a small part, of what makes the film great.  There is something far more important that it gives us.  And, that is what I’m going to talk about for the remainder of this review.

Really, the strengths come in viewing the film in the context which, I feel, I have done a good job in setting up.  I have spent several months now creating an understanding of the 1930s and 1940s as the era of the Great American Screenplays.  I have shown how the style and the amount and the quality of great comedies were the result of the migration of talented newspaper men to Hollywood.  I have shown how the Western was reborn in this period, bearing a special torch of significance as it re-introduced America to its founding mythology.  The fantastic screenwriters, who were writing comedies and romances that stay with us today, were also writing these Westerns, which, even more than the screwball comedy, became America’s signature genre.  I have shown how this went on to influence other nations, in particular, Japan.  I have also shown how 1939 reigns as the greatest year in Hollywood history, because it was a representation of how these fantastic and elementary American screenplays were produced quickly, efficiently, and well, to immense popularity even during a Great Depression.  In 1939, all the greatest elements of the 1930s and 1940s screenplays were on display; the films of that year were a not only a result and manifestation of their time, they were the apotheosis of their era.

In no film of that year was this on better display than was the case in Gone With the Wind.  Sure, the movie was massively popular.  Sure, it featured great actors like Clark Gabel, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, and Olivia de Havilland.  Sure, it had beautiful score.  But, I’ve already covered all that in past reviews and essays.  What truly made it great was none of these things.  What truly made it great was how it played its part in this era of Great American Screenplays.

If the visual weaknesses of the film were to have a silver lining, it would be that they stand as a testament to the film’s script.  This may be the only time you ever hear me say this, because nothing can compensate for failure to create an image when it comes to film, but the simplicity of the movie’s images actually works out because the script is so well crafted.  Instead of an epic along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia, we’re given an epic in the 1930s fashion…the fashion of the great screenplay.

Take, for example, the fact that Gone With the Wind is one of the most prominently featured films on my list of the great movie quotes.  To exist on that list means mostly nothing when it comes to whether or not a given film is any good, but to have such a command of the list—including the top spot on the list—does tell a special story.  It tells the story of the great screenwriters in the studio system of 1939, who took an unparalleled literary mastery to Hollywood and kicked out what such experts as Pauline Kael considered the most clever scripts in history.

I’m the case of Gone With the Wind, the screenwriter in question was Sidney Howard.  Howard’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel actually won him the Academy Award in 1939, though it was, sadly, posthumous.  Earlier that year, Howard had been killed while operating his tractor at his farm.  His death was not only a Hollywood tragedy, but was considered a “Broadway calamity,” since Howard was best known for his work as a dramaturge and playwright.  Over a decade earlier, Howard had penned, and won the Pulitzer Prize for, They Knew What They Wanted, one of the greatest plays of the 1920s, which would later spawn three movie adaptations and a musical adaptation on Broadway.

Also on Howard’s résumé was his adaptation for the stage of Humphrey Cobb’s famous novel, Paths of Glory, which would later be made into a movie directed by the great Stanley Kubrick.  This particular work of Howard’s was particularly telling when it comes to a study of his script for Gone With the Wind.  It has been said that the similarity between these two lies in how they both show the devastation and loss that comes from war.  But the parallels, and the artistic values, run far deeper than that.

Howard had been previously nominated for a couple other Academy Awards while working with Samuel Goldwyn.  These were for his work in Arrowhead and Dodsworth, two works originally written by Sinclair Lewis.  Howard also had prepared a screenplay adaptation of Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but that had never made it to production.

As a matter of fact, Lewis and Howard were actually close friends, who shared strikingly similar political views.  It is ironic, actually, that I have spent several long months of writing about the immense success of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s only to place one of Hollywood’s most liberal members within its context.  And “liberal” may be an understatement to describe Mr. Howard: he was an avid supporter of William Foster in the 1932 presidential election, and Foster was the Communist Party’s nominee.

How could it be, then, that this close friend of the most anti-capitalist star of mainstream literature, this outspoken leftist who wanted Lewis’s most political work committed to film, this thoughtful radical for whom FDR just wasn’t progressive enough, ended up writing the film that, just a few weeks ago, a writer at the New York Post said should “go the way of the Confederate Flag” and be denoted to a mere museum piece?

How could it be that this progressive could have written a movie that, at times, seems to laud the institution of slavery; that seems, at its very heart, to be a romanticization of the rebel South?

Do you have an answer?  Perhaps, you say, that Gone With the Wind is actually a rebuke of the Old South.  After all, do we not see the South’s greatest advocates suffer their comeuppance, particularly when it comes to the film’s main character, Scarlett O’Hara?  (Comeuppance was a common theme in the scripts, particularly the comedies, of the era…consider the themes of such films as The Philadelphia Story).  This could be a sound answer, and you could be on to something, but I think there’s more to it than that.  Or, you could say what I said earlier.  Gone With the Wind, like Paths of Glory, shows the pains of war’s loss, regardless of the side of the war with which you may affiliate.  Again, to that I say you are probably right.  But, there’s more to it than that.

As far as this blog is concerned, Gone With the Wind is great because it is part of a national mythology.  As far as this blog is concerned, Gone With the Wind was a worthy part of Howard’s oeuvre not because it told of the horrors of war or because it stands as a rebuke of the Old South, but because it tells of a long-gone idea, it tells the myth of a land that never was, a land that tried to be, and a land now gone with the wind.  Right from the outset, the movie establishes this important theme:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…

Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow…

Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…

Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.

A Civilization gone with the wind.

Now comes the point when you feel obligated to shout your objections.  After all, the south was no idyllic Camelot.  It was not a dream remembered, but a nightmare forgotten.  Isn’t that so?

Not when it comes to this film, in this context of 1930s and 1940s cinema.  Gone With the Wind, like most movies, is not a political film.  We simplify and pervert a movie—or any work of art, for that matter—when we try to pigeonhole it into a political world.  This is a movie beyond North and South, beyond the history of the United States as we know it.  It is about the American Camelot, falling during the Civil War, which is, in the American mythos, the Trojan War.  We are given in this film neither a commendation nor a condemnation of the ways of the old American south, just as the Iliad and Odyssey worked neither to condone or rebuke the ways of ancient Greece.  We are given a myth, a story of identity and origin that transcends history; and works, instead, to etch a picture and pen a story about human strength and national pride.  We do not try to ban The Iliad because the Greeks were imperialists who had slaves.  Why, then, try to simplify Gone With the Wind to be some sort of slavery propaganda tool?  It is far, far more than that, and to simplify it such is to deny yourself the pleasures of true film competency.

I cannot attempt to go too deep into this topic of the American cinematic myth, because I have dedicated thousands of words on the topic already in this blog.  In order to more fully comprehend that, which I speak, you should read my essay on the American Western (“the Mythology of the American Cowboy”), and probably hit on the Western film reviews that were written in conjunction with it: My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, Red River, and The Treasure of the Sierra MadreSuffice it to say at this point, the great American myths told in these stories, like the great samurai myths in films such as Seven Samurai, Harakiri, and The Samurai Trilogy, are parts of a romantic alternate history, one which tells of a cultural utopia strived for but never known, now dead, whose only way to come alive is through the magnificent artistic medium of the camera and its film.

What made Gone With the Wind such an important contribution to the American mythology is that it was the most focused on the that land of castles and kings that fell in the American Trojan War.  No other American film, Western or not, was so anchored in this sort of pre-modern culture.  While the American Western focused on the Westward expansion as a story of heroes and pioneers, Gone With the Wind told of a world even before that.  It was Eden before David’s Jerusalem, Olympus before Agamemnon’s Athens, and Avalon before Arthur’s Camelot.  Its characters were citizens of a type of pre-mortal realm, where everyone, even the slaves, were part of this somehow-glorious feudal world.  I may be misrepresenting Sidney Howard here, but I think that this was one of those special ideas that he was trying to put forward with this script.  It was well-known that he loved the simpler, agrarian life.  That was what put him at that farm in 1939 where he died.  He had an affinity for that agrarianism which was, at its very heart, the center of that sort of Jeffersonian ideal that was the perpetuating force of the American myth, or experiment.  It was the ideal world of rural pleasure.

And then, that world collapses, and we are brought into a land of death.  Like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are soon inhabitants of a world of charred-earth, where briars and thistles take the place of blossoms and trees.

In essence, the pre-mortal, pre-earth, pre-modern Utopia was a world where ignorance was bliss.  And once reality struck, all sins had to be paid in full.

That is what differentiates this, the most East Coast of all the Westerns, in terms of its importance in the filmic myths of American cinema: it shows both the myth, and the reality.  And it is upon both that a national identity is formed.  What Sidney Howard, Victor Fleming, and all the other great writers and producers who helped with this film did was to create, not a political film, but a mythological one.  (Now is probably as good a time as ever to note that Fleming was not the only director to work on this film, George Cukor, Cameron Menzies, and Sam Wood also had their turns.  It should also be noted that Howard’s Herculean script was reworked by none other than the great Ben Hecht, and others). Now, “myth” does not mean “lie.”  “Myth” means, at least in this context, a tradition, or a story, that explains, not scientifically, the origin of a culture.  It does not deal in fact, though it is certainly allowed to.  It deals, instead, in story—real or imagined—-, a story that personifies ideas and motives in a few thousand words that would take a lifetime to show otherwise.

And, what really mattered, even more than the setting of this myth (at least for Howard), was the myth surrounding its main character, Scarlett O’Hara.  The idyllic setting—and its transformation after the war—was a perfect backdrop against which the film’s hero could be shown.  As Roger Ebert noted in his review of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett was not a character of the 1860s so much as she was a character of the 1930s, the era in which the film was made.  The United States had gone through a period of intense prosperity in the 1920s, when the rich were richer and the poor were also richer than at any other time in American history, and the 1930s were anything but.  A period of sexual liberation for women in the 1920s had been followed by a period of more intense self-understanding in the economic turmoil of the Great Depression.  This is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, told 70 years later.

I think that is why, ultimately, Scarlett is one of the most hate-able yet loveable characters in all of cinema.  She is a woman whose sexual liberality is on the one hand, praiseworthy, while on the other hand, despicable.  She is a woman whose selfish pampering is on one hand obnoxious, while on the other hand, a product of that Utopian anti-earth that we envy so much (the Utopian paradise where even the slaves seem okay with being slaves).  She is a woman in dire need of that ever-famous 1930s thematic archetype: comeuppance.  Ultimately, she earns what she gets, just as the South earned what it got.  But, there was beauty along the way.  And that is what makes the movie so great.

It doesn’t take much, then, to understand what made Gone With the Wind so popular.  It was, perhaps more than any other film in history, a product of its time, despite the fact that it was a period piece.  It’s role in our cultural mythology is as strong as ever when one just stops to realize what they are watching.  When you strip away its politics, you find a towering landmark, not only of film, but of literature, a story whose presumptions lay a setting and create characters far different from our own.  Even Roger Ebert, who never took the same approach to these “mythological” films that I take, recognized this to a degree.  Said he, “The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own—and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, starting with Homer and Shakespeare. A politically correct GWTW would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

In 1939, the Depression was still in full swing, but the industry of film was at its strongest.  Soon, it would take a relative dip, but the rest of the economy would crawl out of its hole when the world went into a second World War.  Then, Rosie the Riveter would be born, the reincarnation of 1939’s Scarlett O’Hara, the woman who took it upon herself to save her beautiful Tara, the most Camelot-ish of all the Camelots in the South.  That Camelot of Tara, for whom Max Steiner wrote one of the most beautiful and recognizable film scores ever made, with its heavenly sunset behind it, stands forever as the American Olympus.  It may be gone with the wind, but we still feel it.  We still hear that divine theme from Steiner’s orchestra.  We still hear the delightful banter of idyllic Southerners living in their ignorant world.  We still feel their agony when a new world crashes in around them. All throughout this film we are given glimpses of what might have been, and what has gone the way of the world.  We see a world of yesterday.  A yesterday that never was.  But tomorrow, after all “is another day.”  Perhaps that is why young Miss Scarlett will never quite be gone with the wind for us.  She reminds us too much of ourselves.  And, frankly (my dear), that is what makes her a heroine of myth.

25 thoughts on “Gone With the Wind (1939)

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