Film review of Gone With the Wind (1939), directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland.
Director: Victor Fleming. (221 mins). Selznick International/MGM (PG).
Cast & credits
Producer: David O. Selznick.
Writer: Sidney Howard.
Camera: Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes.
Music: Max Steiner.
Sets: William Cameron Menzies.
Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O’Neill, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Ona Munson, Alicia Rhett, Laura Hope Crews, Harry Davenport, Leona Roberts, Jane Darwell.
The turbulent romance between spoiled and high-spirited Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) and her rakish suitor Rhett Butler (Gable) is played out against the backdrop of the American Civil War, in which their home, friendships and loyalties are torn apart. Scarlett none the less continues to pursue her poetic, philosophical neighbour Ashley Wilkes (Howard), married to the saintly and good Melanie (de Havilland), whom Scarlett despises.
Being a film critic is a tough gig.
Granted, it’s not as physically grinding as being a coal miner before mechanisation, not as dangerous as cleaning up after the Chernobyl disaster and doesn’t have the inherent evils of real estate work, but it’s tough having an opinion. Especially when it might fly in the face of other, more esteemed film writers and about films whose greatness seems almost sacrosanct.
Gone With the Wind is one of those films that has had me umming and ahing a bit and head scratching after re-watching it this week for my ‘Top 5 Films on UK TV…Christmas 2014’. GWTW has always been a firm favourite of mine. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times over the years, always admiring it and praising it to anyone half listening to me, neatly ignoring the negative points to the film.
But it’s those negative points that have gnawed away at me during this reappraisal, making me question the validity of the usual 5 star rating that it receives across the board. Let me explain my quandary.
Based on the blockbuster bestseller by Margaret Mitchell, the film is set in the weeks just before the American Civil War. Society is divided into several strata, including slaves and their close ‘working’ (if it can be called that) relationships with the white plantation owner families.
Hollywood has largely been unable (or unwilling) to realistically screen this relationship over the years and GWTW is no exception. The film invidiously romanticises the complex nature of slave and slave owner to one of servile jollity (Mammy), uppity laziness (Prissy) or possible retardation (Pork). No matter what way you cut it, it’s difficult to wholly enjoy GWTW because of this.
However, there are subtle subversions of racial power relations. Mammie, magisterially played by McDaniell, wields considerable influence within the O’Hara house and when she and Scarlet spar over her clothing and public demeanour, it is Mammie who wins the upper hand. She is Scarlet’s moral compass throughout the film. When Scarlet’s ‘Bad Idea Bear’ pops up on her shoulder, Mammie is on hand with a sly look, biting comment or consoling statement to put her back on the right road.
That romanticism is of course evident in the look and score of the piece. Steiner’s music is the worst syrupy mush, obvious and cloying. Even worse, is that it plays almost without rest throughout the film, drowning out the actors voices (they over-enunicate at times to make themselves heard) and sounding out of step with the action it is supposed to mirror or heighten during mood shifts.
The costuming (by prolific couturier Walter Plunkett) is superb of course, with brilliant use of colours and fabrics and its a genius way to show the passage of time, even if it is a shame that they contrast with the garish pinks and salmons of the set designs. The painted backdrops see that this artificiality is fully ramped up.
Mitchell’s novel contains 1,037 pages so required some judicious script editing and construction to ensure the best bits were kept in, but we are still left with a hefty running time (3 hours 40 minutes).
Credited screenwriter Howard needed to up the action ante as the proceedings sag noticeably after the war and hardships of life at Tara are overcome. The last hour feels like so much padding and there are some deathly dull scenes that should have been chopped out (Mammie informing Melanie of Bonnie’s death stretches on ad nauseam).
This is a disease that infects all Hollywood epics, ‘bumpf’ in the blood and GWTW has it throughout, from the portentious opening to the drawn out end. We open with an overture and the first title card expresses Selznick and MGM’s ‘honour’ to present the film. We are then whisked into cast and credits that whilst being neatly organised last almost as long as the war itself.
Such screen-time chewing grandness is over the top and riotously unnecessary, but this was the pre-eminent production of the entire decade, so why whisper one’s pride when you can trumpet it from the rooftops?
And the good things? Can they help me decide on the final star rating and resolve my internal cinematic conflict?
That mammoth cast list secures some of the best and most fetchingly nuanced character acting in any American film of this period. Gable was the only actor in Hollywood anyone had in mind for the role of Rhett Butler, the rugged, sarcastic and thoroughly unprincipled ‘guest from Charleston’, a role custom written for him. Despite giving some great performances already and going on to make some fantastic films, this is the one he will be forever associated with and he never bettered himself.
The casting of Scarlet was as lengthy a task as making the film, but to choose Leigh, the quintessential English rose to play the quintessential southern belle was an inspired choice. We can forgive her sometimes wobbly southern accent, for she otherwise completely nails her character, from a kittenish teenager playing one beau off against another, a girl assailed but not broken by the hardships of poverty and starvation and finally to a grown woman with wealth and status but little respectability.
The physicality of her tantrums is an eye-catching conveyor belt of tics: vocal outburst, then an intake of breath, body rears up, back stiffens and eyebrow is raised. This may, or may not, be followed by a hard slap, and Scarlet slaps just about everyone within reach.
She also has a commendable array of soundbites that have passed into movie lore as some of the greatest movie quotes of all time. Had Scarlet been born a hundred years later, she might have made the greatest advertising executive on the planet. Despite the loungers of the script, we none the less are left with blissful sounding dialogue and crisp characterisation.
De Havilland (at the time of writing, soon to celebrate her 99th birthday) was becoming an ever more skilful actress and her Melanie belies the character’s surface fragility with a cunning resourcefulness and use of psychological manipulation, utilising her niceness and passivity at her husband’s birthday party to shame Scarlet, when Atlanta’s high society think they have been having an affair.
If Howard appears to be ‘wooden-headed’ then that is as it should be. He is a ditherer, procrastinating soulfully throughout the film and ensuring Scarlet recognises the real love she holds for others.
Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara and Munson as prostitute Belle Watling also deserves special mentions for their indelible turns, but the whole cast from top to bottom are on form.
It takes one hell of a director to secure these performances, keep a tight control on the set-pieces and make a film an artistic and financial success. Or several directors, as the credited Fleming replaced George Cukor three weeks into filming and was later helped out by Sam Wood for two weeks when Fleming needed a break due to exhaustion. The film is constructed seamlessly, with confidently handled epic scenes that have verve and sweep to them (the benefit bazaar; the shelling and burning of Atlanta; the mass of dead soldiers at the railway station), all helping to fill the vast width of the camera lens.
So I relented and gave it five out five after all, but it was a tight decision. This is a great film, one of the greatest ever made, if greatness is measured in terms of immortality, scale, sweep and the unmistakable pouring of blood, sweat and toil from a myriad talented professionals into every frame of celluloid. There are poor things about it, but there are in most films. That they stand out so prominently in GWTW is a measure of the success of the rest of the film – it’s fantastic most of the time, so when it falls short of expectations, you really notice it. But producer Selznick created a landmark movie that, as a whole, eclipses criticism and passes easily into Hollywood legend.