“Gone with the Wind” - Victor Fleming (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939) is certainly one of the greatest movies ever made, and it has always enjoyed immense popularity with the viewing public [1,2,3,4].  In particular, the commanding performances of its two lead actors, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, linger long in the memories of all those who see the film.  Within the United States and Canada, Gone with the Wind is still ranked first on the list of all films in terms of both total theater admissions and gross earnings [5].  The film was based on Margaret Mitchell’s runaway best-selling novel Gone with the Wind (1936), which was the leading American fiction book seller in both 1936 and 1937.  And it didn’t take Hollywood long to see the 1000-page book’s potential.  Youthful film producer David O. Selznick paid a high price for the film rights to the novel in July 1936, just one month after the novel’s publication. 

Given Margaret Mitchell’s epic depiction of the American Old South that spreads over a 12-year period covering life before, during, and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), one might wonder what parts of her novel were left out of the film.  I have read the novel (which I recommend to you), and the answer to that question is: not much [3,6].  Almost everything in Mitchell’s romantic saga is there, and they all fit together into a harmonious and relentlessly compelling whole.  And despite the film’s long running time lasting more than 3hr 40 min, the film moves fast all the way along.

The filming of the novel took some time to complete, with many revisions to Sydney Howard’s original screenplay and several directorial changes slowing things down.  Nevertheless, the finished product was magnificent, and it represents the ultimate expression of Hollywood-style filmmaking.  The film won a record ten Oscars and was nominated for three others, despite there having been strong competition from other films made that year (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Wuthering Heights).

Upon its release, Gone with the Wind (GWTW) was quickly regarded as the greatest film ever made.  Nevertheless, there later arose some critical naysaying about GWTW in the 1960s, during the increasing fascination with the French New Wave and the rise of a creative new breed of filmmakers.  These critics embraced the auteur theory of filmmaking, which advanced the notion that a great work of art had to be the creation of a single artistic “genius” who would see to it that all aspects of the production conformed to his or her artistic vision [7].  According to this view, “too many cooks spoil the broth”.  In connection with filmmaking, the film director was the candidate auteur, and he or she had to have full control over all aspects of the production.  Certainly this was not the case with Gone with the Wind, since there were a number of individuals who served as the film’s director at various points of the production. Even though Victor Fleming [8] was finally listed as the film’s sole director and won the Oscar for Best Film Director, the film’s direction was undertaken by several different people (the initial director was, in fact, George Cukor).  According to Tim Dirks [3]:
“.. . . almost half of the film was directed by Victor Fleming (45%) - who received screen credit, four other directors contributed various parts of the film: Sam Wood (15%), William Cameron Menzies (15%), 'woman's director' George Cukor (5%) - the first director, B. Reeves ("Breezy") Eason (2%), and the remaining from various second unit directors (18%).” 
So GWTW doesn’t fit into the auterist theory of great film creativity.  Thus auteur theory proponent Andrew Sarris remarked about the film [9]:
“That it [GWTW] fails as personal art is due to the incessant interference with a project that was always too big to be controlled by a single directorial style.”
However, I would argue that despite the impressive cavalcade of auteurist directors that have appeared over time, great works of art can also be produced by a collaborative team.  And Gone with the Wind is a supreme example of that.

The story of Gone with the Wind has two distinct halves.  Over the first half things are mostly happening to Scarlett O’Hara, while in the second half Scarlett is more of an active agent and effecting her own will on the turbulent world around her.  The film begins with a textual statement signaling to the viewer the narrative perspective of the tale
“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.”
Then we see Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), a pretty 16-year-old girl who lives at the wealthy Tara plantation in the state of Georgia, attending a barbecue at the nearby Twelve Oaks plantation. There she is crushed to learn that the man she desperately loves, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), intends to marry his own cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).  Out of sheer spite, the jealous Scarlett immediately and petulantly accepts the wedding proposal of Melanie’s fawning brother, William Hamilton.  Scarlett also briefly meets a handsome and cocky guest from Charleston at the barbecue, businessman Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who expresses some immediate attraction for Scarlett.  

Just then, the launching of the American Civil War is announced, and all the men at the barbecue, except Rhett Butler, confidently rush off to join the Southern Confederate army in hopes of becoming war heroes.  In almost no time at all, Scarlett learns that her off–at-the-front husband William has died and that she is now a widow.  The rest of this half of the film traces the declining fortunes of the Confederate army, as the Northern army begins a destructive invasion of the Confederate states.  All the while, Scarlett still pines for Ashley.  She even befriends Ashley’s wife Melanie and goes to live with her in the city of Atlanta in the hopes of seeing him when he comes home from the war front.  Rhett can only look on in bemused frustration.

Finally, with the Northern army about to invade Atlanta, Scarlett decides to flee with Melanie, now-bedridden from recent childbirth, to Tara.  And with everyone else evacuating, too, Rhett rescues her on the chaotic streets and helps her get to Tara.  When she does get there, she discovers that her mother is dead, her father has lost his mind, and the Tara plantation has been pillaged.  All the while up to this point, the beautiful Scarlett has been shown to be vain and selfish, but she has also been a victim of harrowing circumstances.  At the end of this first half, though, Scarlett remains defiant and vows to never go hungry again.

The second half of the film shows a disordered post-war South that has been invaded by carpetbaggers.  Scarlett has been toughened by her experiences, and she now struggles to make Tara profitable as a farm.  In order to pay off exorbitant taxes on the farm, she steals her sister Suellen’s beau, Frank Kennedy, who is the owner of a successful store, and she marries him for his money. 

A bit later when Scarlett is alone driving a horse-driven wagon in the forest, she is attacked by outlaws.  She is luckily saved when one of her former slaves happens to see what is going on and just manages to come to her rescue.  When Frank and Rhett learn about what almost happened to Scarlett, they notify the vigilante group to which they belong and carry out an attack on the shanty town that is believed to believed to be the home of Scarlett’s attackers.  (In the novel this vigilante group is the Ku Klux Klan, but no reference is made to the Klan in the film.)

After the shanty town raid is completed, it is revealed that Frank was killed in the attack; and so Scarlett learns that she is widow again.  Not long afterwards, Scarlett accepts Rhett’s marriage proposal, but again she is doing it for money – Rhett is wealthy. 

With Scarlett and Rhett finally together, we might expect that romantic fulfillment will now come to them at last, but such does not happen.  Scarlett is still vain and selfish, and she is still mooning over her dream love with Ashley Wilkes.  After she gives birth to a daughter, Bonnie Blue, she becomes concerned about the effects of pregnancy on her trim figure, and so she bans Rhett from further presence in the conjugal bed.  Rhett, of course, is highly troubled by this demand, but he submits to it.  Later, however, a disgruntled and inebriated Rhett carries Scarlet upstairs to the bedroom and forcibly imposes his conjugal rights on her.  Judging by her chirpy expression when she wakes up the next morning, it seems like Scarlett was delighted with her nighttime engagement with Rhett.  But when the two of them talk again in the morning, they are back again “operating at cross-purposes” (a euphemistic phrase Rhett would later use to refer  to their relationship).

Frustrated and still in love with Scarlett, Rhett now devotes himself to smothering his daughter Bonnie Blue with affection.  But tragic events lie in store for them all, and fulfillment remains  always out of reach.  When Scarlett finally comes to the realization that she really does love Rhett and passionately tells him so, it is too late.  After twelve years, he has finally given up on her, and he tells her  he is going back to Charrleston, giving her his memorable despairing remark as he departs.

Seeing Gone with the Wind again today, I am astonished at how magnificent the film continues to be.  With the film’s epic sweep, there are a number of narrative planes, some personal and some social, that collectively contribute to the film’s greatness:
  • Romance 
    Certainly the long, passionate, and frustrating relationship between the two lead characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, is dramatic and unforgettable.  That is the continually winding thread that holds the viewer’s attention throughout.
  • Madness of War 
    The arrogance, stupidity, and inevitable destructiveness of war is well documented in this story.  At the outset of the film, just prior to the American Civil War, all the Southern gentry are confident that they will win the upcoming war in a few weeks.  But later the horror and devastation of the war’s consequences are shown in graphic detail.
  • Southern Gothic fiction 
    Margaret Mitchell’s novel was an example of Southern Gothic literature, a popular genre in America that dramatizes the “long hot summer” of Southern decadence and guilt [10].  This film is a further example of that.
  • Women’s Initiative and Never-Give-Up Spirit 
    Scarlett O’Hara’s relentless determination to do whatever it takes to survive is an inspirational theme for women in this story.  While men around her are floundering, she keeps finding new ways to keep going.  This reflected a growing aspect of American society in the 1930s (and continuing to this day), when women were becoming more active participants in society.
  • Disruptive/Commercializing vs. Tradition-based/Agrarian Societies 
    On the social level, the film graphically depicts the radical transformation of Southern society after the war, when disruptive and exploitative carpetbaggers descended on the South to take advantage of the war-torn society.  This rising emphasis on opening up everything to open competition, though it led to more freedom for former slaves, led to a deterioration in traditional Southern social values.
  • Personal Satisfaction and Survival vs. Moral Duty and Compassion 
    Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are selfish utilitarians and only concerned with their own welfare throughout much of this story.  On the other hand, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is the personification of moral duty and compassion in this story, and although early on Scarlett dismisses her as a "pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny”, Melanie becomes a role model, and both Rhett and Scarlet begin to develop compassionate concerns for others towards the end of the film.  And in fact the viewer may wonder at the end of this film whether this change in personal perspective on the part of Scarlett and Rhett may ultimately lead to a satisfactory outcome for them in the future.
The production values for the film are uniformly outstanding, as the many Oscars awarded to the film attest (notably, for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction).  But I would particularly like to highlight the musical score by Max Steiner, which drew on some of the classic songs by Stephen Foster and which featured several haunting and memorable musical themes, notably “Tara’s Theme”, that were repeated throughout the film.

But what lingers long in my mind the most is the depiction of love and the never-ebbing longing for its fulfillment.  Scarlett is beautiful and desperate for love, but she doesn’t know how to engage with the one person who can bring the love she seeks to fruition.  As Rhett memorably tells her on one occasion in the story:
“You need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.”
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Gone with the Wind (1939): Victor Fleming's Oscar-winning epic war drama starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (19 January 2012).  
  2. Roger Ebert”, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Great Movie, Rogerebert.com, (21 June 1998). 
  3. Tim Dirks, “Gone With The Wind (1939)”, Filmsite, (n.d.).    
  4. Dennis Schwartz, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  5. “Top Lifetime Adjusted Grosses”, Box Office Mojo by IMDb pro, IMDb, (2020).   
  6. “Magill’s American Film Guide. V 2.”, Frank N. Magill (ed.), Salem Press, Englewood Cliffs NJ (1983), text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).   
  7. “Auteur”, Wikipedia, (7 December 2019).   
  8. “VICTOR FLEMING from World Film Directors. V. I. Ed.John Wakeman,    H.W.Wilson Co. NY 1987", text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).  
  9. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), p. 259.
  10. Leslie Fiedler, “The Return of the Vanishing American”, Stein & Day NY (1969), text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).  

No comments: