GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

  • Director: Victor Fleming
  • Writers: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell
  • Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Thomas Mitchell, and Laura Hope Crews
  • Accolades: 2012 AFI Top 100 list (#6), 10 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Victor Fleming, Best Actress – Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress – Hattie McDaniel, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, 2 “special achievement” awards for technical achievement), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Clark Gable, Best Supporting Actress – Olivia de Havilland, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Rent or buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Gone With the Wind has a unique place in the history of the movies. It is, by some measures, literally the biggest hit of all time (by box office gross, adjusted for inflation). It set new standards for filmmaking with its epic scope and its intense use of color at a time when all that technology was brand new. But it also has a darker legacy, in that it essentially created the modern myth of the “Lost Cause,” in which the Confederacy was a noble idea by good people that was defeated by circumstances. It is the first and most memorable depiction of slavery seen by many Americans, but the slavery it depicts is one where slaves are for the most part happy and treated well, not to mention ignorant bumpkins who, except for Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, are either lazy, incompetent, or both. In light of recent developments regarding racial issues, HBO Max recently temporarily pulled the movie to much controversy, then re-added with an “introduction” putting the movie in context by an African-American film critic. Gone With the Wind has survived on lists like the AFI 100 when, say, Birth of a Nation hasn’t, perhaps because its racism is more passive than aggressive. Hattie McDaniel won the only Oscar any Black person won for decades for her performance in this movie, but she won it for playing a slave, and was typecast as a maid for the rest of her career.

The search by MGM for just the right actress to play the heroine Scarlett O’Hara is the stuff of legend and involved basically every actress in Hollywood. The part eventually went to a relative unknown, Vivien Leigh, known at this time as an English stage actress (she was married to Laurence Olivier). Her performance is the driving force in the movie, and feels surprisingly modern. Leigh feels like she could have walked off the street in 2020 and put on these ridiculous dresses. But it is in service of a character that I personally found to be an unrelentingly terrible person that I hated spending time with. The movie may be three and half hours long, but it doesn’t actually disagree with my assessment of Scarlett. That’s why it spends the last half hour giving Scarlett her “comeuppance.” But the movie is still on her side and thinks all this is a tragedy, whereas I basically thought she got what she deserved.

Gone With the Wind spends its lengthy running time (there’s an intermission, of course) following Scarlett’s fortunes as she tries to keep her family’s Georgia plantation running during the years before, during, and after the Civil War. At the same time, she is involved in a love quadrangle with local dandy Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and the dashing playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), along with Ashley’s cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), who Ashley marries “per Wilkes family tradition.” Scarlett is forced to evolve from a spoiled brat to someone who works in the fields and runs a business, but she never evolves from being completely self-centered when it comes to all things involving her personal life. Hence the famous final lines: “Oh Rhett, what shall I do? Where shall I go?” “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Even when having a freak-out, she’s just worried about herself.

The movie’s point of view on all this is clear from the opening crawl, which calls the Old South “a land of cavaliers and cotton fields,” and goes on to say that “here gallantry took its last bow.” This point of view seems absolutely whack-a-doo to many of us today, but in the early 20th Century it was pretty mainstream. In fact, it’s pretty common for the Confederates to be the good guys in the earlier days of Hollywood. They were underdogs fighting the man, it seems the thinking went. There are at least three movies on the AFI 100 that I can think of immediately with unrepentant Confederates as the heroes (The General and The Searchers are the others). 

But even in the 1930s, the South depicted here is like another planet. When Scarlett goes to a party early on in the movie, all the fancy ladies retire for a nap in the middle, as is apparently expected of them. They sleep in piles as they are slowly fanned by slaves. Nobody thinks it’s weird that Ashley’s marrying his cousin, as if all these people were Hapsburgs. This provides a stark contrast to some bits later in the movie and also allows Clark Gable to stand out as a breath of fresh air against all this silliness.

One reason Scarlett is forced to fend for herself as the film goes on is that, for the most part, her slaves are useless. She seems shocked after the Union invasion that most of them would rather head North than stay on as her servants. One of those that stays is “Prissy” (Butterfly McQueen) who proves to be (1) a liar, (2) incompetent, and (3) scared of everything, including “cows” and “dead people.” Malcolm X has been quoted as saying that watching McQueen’s performance in this movie “made him want to crawl under a rug.” This is not a knock on Ms. McQueen herself, because after all she was just playing her role as best she could, but the character of Prissy feels like a physical manifestation of what a racist jackwagon is imagining when they complain about lazy people on welfare.

For all these reasons, I hadn’t sat down and watched this movie before. One thing I definitely was not expecting was for the last hour of this movie to be Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara re-enacting scenes from Marriage Story. I kid, but we do spend an awful lot of time on the them having fights, on drama over whether Scarlett’s going to let Rhett into bedroom (Did I mention there’s marital rape in this movie? There’s definitely marital rape in this movie.), and on lots of other drama besides. There is a lot of drama.

So, you might ask, what is the appeal? Well, the sweep is extremely large, in a way very few movies were up to this time. And it was basically the first time all this was done in color (The Wizard of Oz came out the same year). The scene just before intermission where Scarlett, Prissy, and a sick Melanie ride around Atlanta while it’s on fire is impressive today, not least because you know that they actually had to burn down actual buildings (or at least fake buildings) for that scene. Now imagine you’d seen like three color movies before, and then that scene happens on a big screen in front of you.

Almost more impressive to modern eyes is the scene where Scarlett picks her way among the wounded at a makeshift hospital, and the camera keeps pulling back, and back, and back, and we see that there are thousands of wounded men in every direction. If a movie today did this, it would use CGI and not be impressive at all. But here, you know that a massive movie studio wrangled this huge crowd. Victor Fleming has the sole directing credit on this movie, but the direction was also a group effort. George Cukor spent two years on pre-production but was replaced after less than three weeks of actual filming. Fleming was called directly from the set of The Wizard of Oz to take over. The reasons for Cukor’s firing ranged from the head of the studio not thinking he was shooting fast enough to a rumor Clark Gable got him fired because he “knew about Gable’s past as a gay hustler.” Fleming, unsurprisingly, literally collapsed from exhaustion, and was replaced for two weeks by another MGM director, Sam Wood (who directed multiple Marx Brothers movies, along with The Pride of the Yankees). But only Fleming received the credit, and the Best Director Oscar.

A word is needed here about Hattie McDaniel, who plays “Mammy,” the loyal slave and/or servant who isn’t afraid to tell off Scarlett and remind her that she changed her diapers. She had been working her way up in Hollywood for the past decade, but it was hard for a Black woman at that time. The roles available were very limited, but at the same time she received criticism within the Black community for the roles she chose (which, even before Gone With the Wind, had more than once included former slaves longing to return to the old South). She did her best with what she was given, and even caused controversy (mostly in the South) for her performance in Alice Adams because it was felt that she stole several scenes from her White co-star, Katherine Hepburn. She reportedly got the part of Mammy after showing up for her audition in her own maid’s uniform (she had worked as a maid between early jobs in Hollywood).

McDaniel’s Oscar win came as a major upset, as her co-star De Havilland was heavily favored, and she had to sit a segregated table to the side of the auditorium. After her win, she was type cast to an even greater degree than she had been before as a maid. In 1951, she was cast in Beulah, the first ever sitcom with a Black lead. She still played a maid to a white family, though. At least publicly, she didn’t complain, She is reported to have said, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d make $7 a week being one.” McDaniel left Beulah after several episodes due to a diagnosis with breast cancer. After her death in 1952, she was denied burial in the Hollywood Cemetery with other stars, her final wish, as the cemetery would not allow the remains of Black people. She remained the only Black acting Oscar winner until Sidney Poitier in 1963, and the only Black actress until Whoopi Goldberg in 1990. Here is her acceptance speech:

3 thoughts on “GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

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