This week, Cinemark and Turner Classic Movies began showing the classic film Gone With the Wind on the big screen across the country, in commemoration of the film’s 75th anniversary. The movie premiered in Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, and went on to become the top grossing film in history—a title it still holds, if the 1939 gross is adjusted for inflation. The film also won ten academy awards, a record for its day, and was named number four on the AFI list of the 100 greatest films of the twentieth century. In previous re-releases, the film had been shown in a converted Cinemascope projection, but for purposes of the 75th anniversary, the film was shown in its original projection, so that audiences could see it exactly as it was shown in 1939.
To write a review of a film that already has this kind of history seems an exercise in futility. But it does seem as if a revaluation of the film may be worth doing on the occasion of its reaching the three-quarters of a century mark. I was rather surprised to walk into the theater to find a completely full house, and the excitement of such a crowd and its reactions made the experience quite different than watching a DVD of the film, even the newly available 75th anniversary DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, with its eight hours of bonus materials.
I thought about reviewing the film as if it were a new release, and try to judge it accordingly, but I found this impossible because of this: the movie would never be made in today’s market. There are several reasons for this, the most practical one being the fact that no one today would make a four-hour film for popular consumption. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter than those of our grandparents in the ’30s. Nowadays, filmmakers are much more likely to take, say, a 280-page novel like The Hobbit (which, interestingly, came out the same year as Margaret Mitchell’s novel) and turn it into three two-hour movies, than to take a thousand page novel like Gone With the Wind and make it one very long movie. The cynic in me says that the contemporary way forces you to pay three times to see the whole story, while David O. Selznik, GWTW’s producer, only made you pay once. But then the even more cynical part of me answers that if Selznik had thought of it, he would have made his movie into a trilogy as well.
Other aspects of Gone With the Wind are equally archaic. Take, for example, the use of intertitles on which transitional language was placed in order to introduce new scenes. These text frames remind us as viewers that in 1939 Hollywood was only about a decade or so beyond the silent film era, and these intertitles are a holdover from that period. But more than the technical clunkiness of these, the language itself—full of overly sentimental, romanticized descriptions of the Old South—is offensive and laughable from a contemporary point of view. The opening scene of the film is introduced by these words:
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…
The idealized image given here probably struck a chord among many 1939 viewers, especially in the South, but contemporary viewers would not stand for it. Slave-owners were not cavaliers, and though they may have talked about honor, their definition of honor in this film (with the exception of the romanticized Ashley Wilkes) has nothing to do with idealized chivalry but rather with hypersensitivity to personal insult. And to imply that the relationship of “Master and Slave” was part of an idealized world, as this does by putting it into this romanticized context, is nothing short of outrageous. This kind of flowery absurdity convinces me that one of the film’s ten Academy Awards—the one given to Sidney Howard for adapted screenplay—was quite undeserved (though since Howard had died in the interim, the award may have been a sentimental one—the first posthumous award in Oscar history).
Later in the film, at the end of the war, the intertitle continues its idealized view of the confederate soldier:
Home from their lost adventure came the tattered Cavaliers…Grimly they came hobbling back to the desolation that had once been a land of grace and plenty. And with them came another invader…more cruel and vicious than any they had fought…the Carpetbagger.
The implication, of course, is that the Union army was cruel and vicious—as is the Yankee deserter that Scarlett shoots when he invades Tara—so that the confederate army was fighting a kind of holy war against those evil powers, rather than a war to protect an immoral institution, and that even after the war that struggle had to continue against the evil carpetbaggers who invaded the land. It is no accident that the carpetbagger depicted in the film is an African American. Nor is it an accident that the action taken by the men in Scarlett’s circle to “clean out the shantytown” where Scarlett was accosted, in which Ashley Wilkes is wounded and Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy is killed, is (though the film glosses it over) a glorified Ku Klux Klan affair.
And speaking of Ashley Wilkes: could such a character ever be portrayed on screen in a contemporary film? He is not simply a less attractive character than he may have been in 1939—a brooding intellectual with no ambition or initiative, whose only concern seems to be dwelling on the beauty that has been lost to the world with the collapse of his way of life. In creating him Mitchell may have had in mind some of the characteristics of the romantic Byronic hero of the nineteenth century, a character type who was intelligent, depressive, emotionally and intellectually tortured, traumatized, highly emotional—but she failed to give Ashley some of the other Byronic characteristics—cunning, rebelliousness, recklessness—that might have made him more believable. I have no difficulty believing his leading Scarlett on while steadfastly standing by his wife—that is a very human thing to do. But his conversation with Scarlett after the war, when he tells her that it is only his way of life that he mourns, not the end of slavery, declaring he would have freed all his slaves after his father died, is pure self-deception: To imply that his lamented way of life could have been at all possible if it were not built on the backs of slaves is absurd, and if he actually believes that he is an imbecile. Yet it seems clear that Margaret Mitchell probably believed it. This is a character that could not possibly be portrayed in a contemporary film, unless it was done with a great deal of irony.
I have less of a problem with Melanie Wilkes. She is certainly idealized, but she seems more real than Ashley. I have known individuals of great kindness, who love their spouses and their close friends so deeply that nothing the other does can change their generous view of those people. Though Melanie is “too good to live,” something of a Hollywood archetype, she’s not too good to be believed.
But continuing the list of aspects of GWTW that could not fly in today’s world, consider for a moment the famous scene where the jealous and intoxicated Rhett seizes Scarlet and carries her, struggling, up that wide red-carpeted staircase toward her bedroom. The film cuts to the following morning, and a Scarlet who wakes up singing, dreamily content. Really? The woman is raped by her husband and, fulfilling every misogynist stereotype, is subdued and happy about it. That’s the way to handle your woman! If she’s cranky, she just needs to get laid, and then she’ll be submissive again, as God intended. Of course, the concept of marital rape is a relatively recent legal phenomenon, and perhaps the scene can be excused as a product of its time, when the medieval concept of the “marriage debt”—the tenet that the wife did not have the right to refuse sexual favors to her husband if he demanded them—was still in effect on most levels of American society.
Such an excuse cannot be made for positive portrayal of slavery as a benevolent institution in the film. That ship had long sailed, and it was anachronistic, and a kind of pandering to Southern sympathies, to depict the institution in such a way some 75 years after the Civil War. Yet Gone With the Wind does so. Big Sam, the foreman of Tara’s field hands, may be the most egregious example of this. Happy at one point to go and dig ditches for the Confederacy, Big Sam rescues Scarlett from an assault in Shantytown, and then agrees to go back to Tara, virtually eschewing his freedom and returning to the place he had been a slave, saying “I got enough of them carpetbaggers.”
Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, a silly, lazy, irresponsible girl, is presented as the norm of the African American: someone who, like Big Sam, would be unable to survive in a world where she didn’t have benevolent white folks like Scarlett to look after her. But the fiction of benevolent slaveholders is belied vividly in Scarlett’s relationship with Prissy, as she threatens to “take a strap to her” at one point, and at another slaps the girl hard in the face. Of course, Scarlett slaps Ashley and Rhett in the film as well, but those are not slaps given to inferiors who cannot fight back, and the slap of Prissy caused a gasp among members of the audience when I watched the film.
It is certainly likely that some slave-owners were in fact benevolent and treated their slaves as well as they could under the circumstances, and it is certainly true that there may have been some slaves who saw freedom as a difficult challenge and had some affection for their masters. But this was certainly not the norm, as GWTW depicts it, and, more importantly, as last year’s Oscar winning Twelve Years a Slave (a healthy corrective to Gone With the Wind) demonstrated convincingly, even white masters whose intentions were essentially humane (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character) were unavoidably cruel because of the inhumanity of the system itself. One cannot for long serve ice-water in Hell.
The single exception to this absurd depiction of slaves and slavery is the character of Mammy. Hattie McDaniel is able to take what could have been a stereotypical role of a black household servant and turn it into a memorable portrayal of a woman who knows her own worth, demands the respect of those around her, brooks no impertinence from anyone, white or black, is the closest confidante of her mistress and knows her well enough to be able to manipulate her, and provides the voice of reason to her often impetuous mistress and, in fact, to the rest of the cast. Mammy is in many ways the choral figure of the drama, the character in whom the audience recognizes the responses it should be having—in her comment to Scarlett when Melanie goes to meet Ashley upon his return from the war (“He’s her husband, ain’t he?”), or her reactions to Rhett and Scarlet’s shocking mutual accusations after the death of their daughter Bonnie, for example. When I watched the film this time, the audience’s strongest reactions were when Mammy was on the screen. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in many ways, Hattie McDaniel’s performance redeems the film from its own unhealthy nostalgia.
For obvious reasons, the film was strongly censured in the African-American community, and, despite her Oscar win, McDaniel (the first black actor to be so honored) was roundly criticized. Walter Francis White, leader of the NAACP, called her an “Uncle Tom” for taking part in the movie, to which McDaniel is said to have responded, “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” In retrospect, it seems today that Hattie McDaniel was able to rise above the material Hollywood offered her and make it memorable, in the same way that Mammy rises above her position at Tara and earn the respect of all other characters in the story.
But it is in fact the performances that, taken together, save this movie. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is viewed by many as an iconic performance, and of course netted her the first of her two Oscars. I’m not sure it would play quite as well in today’s market: Leigh was, primarily, a classically trained British stage actress, and her acting style may be a bit mannered for contemporary film audiences. Still, her soliloquy at the end of Act I, with her powerful “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” remains one of the most memorable moments in American film. And her character’s story retains its original appeal: stripped of the trappings of its absurdly romanticized setting (and the uncomfortable rape scene with its aftermath), Scarlett’s drive, her refusal to be beaten by the powerful forces of her environment that contrive to keep her down, her canny business acumen and ability to go beyond the antebellum limits and expectations placed upon her sex as she faces the reality of the postbellum world, make her an early feminist poster-child, a role that certainly plays well to audiences today.
More amenable to contemporary tastes is surely Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. With an ease and naturalness that enables him to smirk, scowl, and banter his way into the hearts of every woman in the audience (how can Scarlett seriously prefer Ashley to him?), Gable owns this part. In one of the great travesties of Academy Award history, Gable lost the Oscar to Robert Donat (for Goodbye Mr. Chips)—a worthy actor but, realistically, Gable’s performance is a timeless and indelible example of film acting and charisma. Donat’s is forgotten.
Beyond the brilliant cast, the technical aspects of the film are remarkable. Its brilliant use of Technicolor—it won a special Academy Award for its use of color “for the enhancement of the dramatic mood”—paved the way for more and more color films to be made. Its period costumes are lavish and authentic throughout. Max Steiner’s musical score is memorable, the use of the recurring “Tara’s theme” providing an inspiration for later film composers, notably Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score for Doctor Zhivago (with its recurring “Lara’s Theme”).
But more notably than all of these are the brilliant and sometimes revolutionary uses of the camera in the film. Cinematographers Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan were responsible for some of the most memorable shots in movie history: that passionate scene of Rhett carrying Scarlet up that wide red staircase into the shadows above; the shots of the hoop skirts in the dance scene in Savannah; the shadow of Melanie’s door as it closes in Scarlett’s face; and the shot that everyone remembers—the long crane shot which begins with Scarlett looking for Doctor Meade at the train station in Atlanta and then pulls the camera further and further back, showing a broader and broader area, covered with dozens, then hundreds, then what seems like thousands of wounded soldiers all lying in pain on the ground around her, finally moving back to reveal a tattered confederate flag flapping in the breeze over the scene of devastation. The film might be worth seeing for that scene alone. Well, that and Hattie McDaniel.
All of these things combine to make the film a great one despite its other shortcomings. Add to them the sheer scope of the production—Selznik used 2,400 extras, 1,100 horses, 375 other animals, and employed 50 actors with spoken parts for his four-hour epic. No, the film could not be made today, in part because of its objectionable world view, but in part also because of its sheer enormity. That such a project could be conceived and then completed is worthy of recognition. With some reservations, I need to give this film four Shakespeares.