Film #72 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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First of all, I want to start with a statement of what I believe. Each person from any generation is a product of the time and place the individual grew up in and learned in. No one from another time period, geographic area, or socio-economic class will ever be able to fully understand, let alone adequately judge, another person or that person’s creation. This is especially true with individuals from different time periods.
The 1939 film, Gone with the Wind, is based on a 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell. Some countries were beginning to recover from The Great Depression by this time although The Dust Bowl had not yet finished its three stages. There was little money and whole families suffering. The book was published in June of 1936. Over 1,000 pages and costing a previously unheard $3.00 during the depression, this work quickly became ‘the’ bestseller of 1936 and 1937. To me this is so unheard of, it would be like the common man or woman today paying $900 today for a regular hard copy novel.
Film rights were purchased a month after publication and then the story was all about casting and filming the massive work. In a great PR stunt Selznick Productions wound up interviewing over a thousand unknowns nationwide for the part of Scarlett. Principle filming took around six months with another three to four for post-production work. Max Steiner composed the original soundtrack which, in my opinion, still stands as one of the greatest soundtracks for a movie. Gone with the Wind was shot in three strip Technicolor. This is the film that glorifies Technicolor and it needs to be seen on the big screen.
The four biggest stars of Gone with the Wind are: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler; Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara; Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes; and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton/Wilkes. Additional great performances put in by such actors as: Hattie McDaniel as Mammy; Butterfly McQueen as Prissy; Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara; Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat; Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade; and Ona Munson as Belle Watling. To say the movie was a highly anticipated film event would be a gross understatement. In fact I cannot really say what would be a modern equivalent other than perhaps Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The novel (and movie) is what is called a Bildungsroman or a coming-of-age story of a young woman before, during, and after the Civil War in the south. It is fiction — historical fiction, yes — but still fiction. It was written by an upper class white woman raised in the south whose grandmother could offer firsthand accounts of the Civil War along with numerous aging Confederate soldiers. As with any historical event there is no omniscient point of view and I do not believe the novel, nor the film, should try to be anything other than what they are. There are other accounts both fictional and non-fiction than one can read to get more perspective to the time and place. No one should forget this is a fictional story.
The movie premiered in Atlanta in December 15, 1939. I was pleased to learn that Clark Gable actually wanted to boycott the premiere when he learned that Hattie McDaniel and other black cast members would not be able to attend because of Jim Crow laws in the south. McDaniel was the one that told him to attend. She herself received criticism for playing Mammy, she responded that she would “rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.”
While most people would think this movie was a romance movie, it is one of the strangest romance movies I have ever seen as the true lovers do not get together. It is more the story of a teenager who grows up and finally realizes what she really wants and desires. This movie tells a sweeping story that is fictional but also grand in a way that I cannot describe. I would say the best scene for conveying what I mean by this is the Atlanta Railroad Station scene. One first sees Scarlett pretty close up looking for Dr. Meade in the RailRoad Car station. As the shot follows her looking for Dr. Meade, it zooms out and you see more and more miserable wounded and dying soldiers until one has a bird’s eye view of the station, the death and dying, with the Confederate flag appearing in the last shot before we see Scarlett up close again.
It is my belief that Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara is what makes this movie the classic. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler definitely contributed, as did all the other actors and actresses, but Leigh nailed it. In fact, I urge people to just study her face throughout the movie. You can read Scarlett’s journey to adulthood just from her face. I’ve included some great scenes of Scarlett that illustrate how great an actress Vivien Leigh was in this role. Pay close attention to her face.
I have not even begun to touch on about the fashions, especially Scarlett’s dresses, so I leave one composite shot below as a tease. Watch the movie and enjoy it for what it is, a fictional story set in a time long gone.