Friday, June 27, 2008

Target #216: Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)

TSPDT placing: #62
Directed by: Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Sam Wood (uncredited)
Written by: Margaret Mitchell (novel), Sidney Howard (screenplay), F. Scott Fitzgerald (dialogue polish) (uncredited), Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten (all contributing writers) (all uncredited)
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Ona Munson

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Producer David O. Selznick must have known in advance that Gone with the Wind (1939) would become the highest-grossing motion picture ever made. He purchased the rights to Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel for an unprecedented $50,000, heaped a truckload of money into the project and exhausted the efforts of no less than three directors – Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood and possibly a few others, including William Cameron Menzies and B. Reeves Eason. Such was Selznick's passion for the project that he is typically credited as the prime architect of the film's success, a definitive exception to the auteur theory – unless, of course, one simply considers Selznick to be the auteur. The extravagance of the production is instantly recognised in the film's elaborate costume and set design, in addition to Ernest Haller's sweeping epic cinematography. If it weren't for such lavishness, the picture might easily have vanished into the background as a stuffy, overwrought melodrama; but filmmaking of this magnitude leaves a considerable imprint on one's memory, and audiences have come to epitomise Gone with the Wind as the embodiment of Hollywood's Golden Age.

The most exciting acts of the story, which was adapted by Sidney Howard from Mitchell's novel, take place during the Civil War, when the triumphant Yankees are marching towards Atlanta, casting an ominous shadow over the ill-fated city. The grandiose scope of the photography – the seemingly-endless sprawl of wounded soldiers, the desperate last-minute dash past the blazing munitions factory – would go unrivalled until the late 1950s, when David Lean discovered the widescreen camera. Clarke Gable was the fans' only choice for the role of the roguish but noble Rhett Butler, but it's Scarlett O'Hara whom I find most interesting, even if I disliked her more and more as the film progressed. The 1930s was very much a decade of change in how women were portrayed in cinema, with actresses such as Mae West (I'm No Angel (1933)) and Bette Davis (Dark Victory (1939)) achieving success as smart, independent characters, shifting away from the notion of the "damsel in distress." Scarlett, a role eventually given to unknown Vivien Leigh, was the apex of the independent woman – so independent, in fact, that she could never be happy in love with a man.

The film has a fascinatingly-ambivalent relationship with its main protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara. She is obviously a very strong female character, and her resourcefulness and enterprise in difficult times is justly-celebrated… however, at what price? In order to spite the Yankees for destroying her way of life, Scarlett essentially becomes those whom she holds in such contempt, surrendering any remaining traces of honour or integrity. There's no doubt that she commits damnable atrocities, often at the expense of those who love her, but the film can't quite bring itself to hate her – the audience is left suspended in midstream, presented with a wolf in sheep's clothing, but nonetheless expected to celebrate the clothing for its practicality and expediency. Conversely, Melanie Hamilton (the lovely Olivia de Havilland) embodies kindness and selflessness, but she is inevitably doomed to a premature death, perhaps a product of her inability to adapt to this new lifestyle. In the gritty aftermath of the American Civil War, the kind and decent are condemned to an uneasy demise, whereas the crass, opportunistic Scarlett lives to greet another day.

The film should have ended with Clarke Gable's immortal parting words, a fade to black as his figure disappears forever into the mist, with our selfish and unprincipled anti-heroine having finally received her comeuppance, three times filled and running over. After stopping at nothing to obtain what she wants, Scarlett ultimately finds that she has been chasing an illusion, and, in the meantime, she has pushed away all that she still holds dear in this world, the one man who potentially offered her a lifetime of happiness. But, alas, Selznick had a lot of money riding on this picture, and it certainly would not have done to disappoint the ladies in the audience. Instead, the film concludes with Scarlett's optimistic epitaph – "after all, tomorrow is another day!" – implying that she may eventually win Rhett back, or, at least, that she'll never stop trying. Whether I want her to succeed is an entirely different matter. Scarlett is almost the female equivalent of Tim Holt's George Amberson-Minafer, arrogant and thoroughly deserving of a comeuppance, and neither deserved a happy ending, regardless of whether or not the studio provided one.

Currently my #4 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)

12th Academy Awards, 1940:
* Best Picture (win)
* Best Director - Victor Fleming (win)
* Best Actress in a Leading Role - Vivien Leigh (win)
* Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Hattie McDaniel (win)
* Best Art Direction - Lyle R. Wheeler (win)
* Best Cinematography, Colour - Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan (win)
* Best Film Editing - Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom (win)
* Best Writing, Screenplay - Sidney Howard (win)
* Best Actor in a Leading Role - Clark Gable (nomination)
* Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Olivia de Havilland (nomination)
* Best Effects, Special Effects - Jack Cosgrove (photographic), Fred Albin (sound), Arthur Johns (sound) (nomination)
* Best Music, Original Score - Max Steiner (nomination)
* Best Sound, Recording - Thomas T. Moulton (Samuel Goldwyn SSD) (nomination)
* Technical Achievement Award: R.D. Musgrave - For pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment in the production Gone with the Wind.
* Honorary Award: William Cameron Menzies - For outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind (plaque).

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1989

AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies:
* Ranked #4 in 1998.
* Ranked #6 in 2007.
* Ranked #2 in 100 Years... 100 Passions in 2002.

What others have said:

"The film is constantly magnificent to look upon. In two parts, its first is by far the more arresting and, as such, outdistances the second considerably and definitely tends to emphasize the overlength of the final portion. As it stands, however, this is a significant and magnificent enterprise."
Boxoffice Magazine, December 23, 1939

"If the central drama of Gone with the Wind is the rise and fall of a sexual adventuress, the counterpoint is a slanted but passionate view of the Old South. Unlike most historical epics, Gone with the Wind has a genuine sweep, a convincing feel for the passage of time. It shows the South before, during and after the war, all seen through Scarlett's eyes. And Scarlett is a Southerner. So was Margaret Mitchell. The movie signals its values in the printed narration that opens the film, in language that seems astonishing in its bland, unquestioned assumptions"
Roger Ebert, June 21, 1998.

"Perhaps 1939 was the latest that Hollywood could get away with such a generous evocation of the Old South: a world of elegant gentlemen, comely ladies and smiling slaves. This is a world the movie indulges on the tragic and romantic basis that it was destroyed by a hubristic secessionist war and swept away by the wind of history. But the film actually offers a ringing tribute to the south's survival in spirit, embodied in the resilient belle, Scarlett O'Hara - a magnificent performance from Vivien Leigh - and Clark Gable's bound-ah Rhett Butler whose legendary indifference gave us that classic quote."
Peter Bradshaw, 2004.

"Selznick was intelligent enough to see that success depended on a sober acceptance of the popular notion that Gone with the Wind was a serious, important work. But there were many in the town then who could have managed that just as uncynically as he did. And some of them were capable of making movies that were what GWTW never was -- deep-down fun. On the whole I guess I wish that someone like Cecil B. De Mille had taken it on -- no "taste," plenty of action and operatic emotion. But it's not important, unless you're writing a social history of Hollywood. Or a commercial history. Gone With the Wind simply has nothing to do with that other, more important kind of history -- the history of art."
Richard Schickel, 1973

1 comment:

tosser|ressot said...

Good epicness, but that's about it. As '39 goes, Stagecoach and Rules of the Game are much better.