|"Frankly, my dear...."|
`From the film's opening credits:
"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...."
And that's a jolly good thing, too!
|Howard and de Havilland|
The fact of the matter is that I love Gone with the Wind and believe it to be as fine an example of film making as one could possibly come up with. When it first came out on video cassette in the late 1980's, I was living in New York City. On the day it was released I rushed down the block and around the corner to the old Video Shack on Broadway and 49th Street to purchase a copy. Likewise when it came out on DVD a number of years later. There's no rational argument against the truth that it is a very entertaining movie - a masterpiece even. My only problem with Gone with the Wind is that, as a work of historical fiction, it's pure bunk. But since this month is the seventy-fifth anniversary of its release, I can't help pausing for a bit of critical reflection.
Although not the greatest movie ever made, it has got to be one of the best examples of how to go about telling a good story on film. The characters within this plot have got to be some of the most reprehensible people one could contrive in fiction:
And yet, for almost four solid hours, we are irresistibly drawn into the drama in the lives of these horrifically flawed people. We just can't take our eyes off them! Three-quarters-of-a-century after the film's release, at a time when all but one of the principle cast members are long dead, the fact that we're still talking about Gone with the Wind is impressive in itself.
Consider the film's opening scene. Slaves are depicted laboring away on the O'Hara family plantation. One of them decides that it's time to call it a day.
Slave: Quitin' time! Quitin' Time!!
Big Sam: Who says it's quitin' time?
Slave: I says it's quitin' time!
Big Sam: I's the foreman of Tara. I says when it's quitin' time. Quitin' Time! QUITIN' TIME!!!
At the outset, the nation's worst, most unpardonable sin is given the treatment of some sort of screwball comedy. The depiction of the old south as a paradise "of master and of slave" is a screaming flaw in an otherwise impressive production. Incredibly, the caricature of the banjo playin', happy-go-lucky Uncle Tom - shufflin' 'cross the ol' plantation - was still in vogue in 1939.
When Gable got word that the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce refused McDaniel an invitation to the premiere, he hit the roof. He adamantly refused to attend without his dear friend. No one could change his mind - no one, that is, except Hattie. She gently persuaded him that it was probably the best thing for the film's success that he attend. Only then did Clark Gable agree.
Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to receive the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She deserved it. Incredibly, at the 1940 ceremony that awarded her the statuette, she and her escort were required by the management of Hollywood's Coconut Grove nightclub to sit at a table-for-two in an area segregated from the rest of the cast. Even Tinsel Town had a long way to go in 1940.
|The last one standing|
Even Clark Gable did not want to do the film he is best remembered for. He was literally forced into playing Rhett Butler. Under contract at the time to MGM, the head of that studio was Louis B. Mayer, who was only-too-happy to loan-out his biggest star to Selznick International - for a substantial price. David O. Selznick was married to Mayer's daughter, Irene. He readily complied to his father-in-law's demands. To the end of his life, Gable did not regard Gone with the Wind as one of his career's milestones. For reasons known only to him, he always seemed somewhat embarrassed by it. One would hope that one of those reasons was the film's flawed historical interpretation. Good for him if that's the case.
Could the people who had a hand in making this film have possibly known in 1939 that, seventy-five years later, it would still be as fresh on the public's mind as it was then? It's easy to imagine that - flawed history notwithstanding - they knew they were onto something bigger than themselves. The passage of three-quarters of a century reaffirms what an outstanding technical achievement Gone with the Wind was - and is.
|Tomorrow is another day|
One wonders if there was a curse on this film. So many of the people connected to it would die young.
Writer Sidney Howard died in a tractor accident on his Massachusetts farm on August 23, 1939 while the film was still in production. He was forty-eight.
Leslie Howard, age fifty, was killed on June 1, 1943 when the plane in which he was a passenger was shot down by the Nazis over the Bay of Biscay. His body was never recovered.
Director Victor Fleming passed away on January 6, 1949, at the age of fifty-nine.
Margaret Mitchell was forty-eight when she was struck and killed by a car while crossing an Atlanta street on August 16, 1949.
|Where Hattie Sleeps|
Ona Munson, the actress who played Belle Watling, died by her own hand on February 11, 1955. The note she left behind said, "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me." She was fifty-one.
Clark Gable died suddenly on November 16, 1960 of a massive heart attack. He was fifty-nine.
After decades of chronic alcoholism and incapacitating mental illness, Vivien Leigh succumbed to tuberculosis on July 7, 1967. She was fifty-three.
As for the producer, David O. Selznick's most famous movie would end up being a mixed blessing for him. Every subsequent film in his career - regardless of the quality - would be judged by critics and film-goers alike as inferior to Gone with the Wind. He was sixty-three when he passed from the scene on June 22, 1965.
No doubt about it: Gone With the Wind took a decided toll on quite a few mortals. As of this writing, only Olivia de Havilland survives.
So rent it, buy it, celebrate and savor it as a high mark in the history of American film making. Just don't use it as an American history lesson, okay? It falls dreadfully short of the mark. For a more accurate picture of what life was like for African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, go and see "Twelve Years a Slave". After a good look at that one you'll never again view Gone with the Wind in quite the same way.
The Making of Gone With the Wind
This two-hour documentary from 1988 on the film's making was narrated by Christopher Plummer. It is as riveting as Gone with the Wind itself, and only half as long. At the time it was made, a lot of the people involved with GWTW were still living. That's not the case today. It was made just in time. One of the most impressive things about viewing this film is taking into consideration the technical innovations that went into the creation of Gone With the Wind. Almost eight decades later, well into the digital age, it still impresses.
AFTERTHOUGHT: 12/23/14, 4:27 AM:
While doing a little research on this piece, I discovered that in 1963 Vivien Leigh performed in a musical comedy called "Tovarich" (This I never knew!) Here she is performing a number from the show on the Ed Sullivan program:
This was the moment before she succumbed to illness and madness.