Gone with the Wind: The First Epic

I’m an avid reader. I am. I always have been. My girlfriend loves reading so much that she writes about it. Someday, I may add a reading section to this blog. If you’re curious, I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I just finished Moonglow by Michael Chabon and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

 

Why do I say this? Well, it just so happens like I like to blabber on and on about books. I love them so. The genre, outside of romance, doesn’t count.

 

I also say this because of how many movies are based on books. I’m not breaking any new ground here, either. But there have been more than I expected Best Picture winners that are based on books. Movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and The Silence of the Lambs I didn’t know were based on books. For as long as Hollywood has existed, it’s made movies out of books, and it will continue to do so until there are either no more movies or no more books.

 

But when it comes to movies based on books, and Best Picture winners based on books, this week is the “Granddaddy of them all,” 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Based on the 1936 book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind is really the first of the Best Picture winners to really be considered an epic.

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Hang on, I’ll get to that. We’ve all heard, or even said, the line that the book was better than the movie. To me, I know that the book will be better; that much is a fact. Therefore, I tend to judge movies and their accompanying books separately, and this fact drives my reader girlfriend up the wall.

 

As I mentioned when I wrote about Argo, way back in the beginning of this idiot’s guide to Best Picture winners, I said that I’ve always felt that folks who make movies can take certain creative liberties when it comes to their adaptation of it. I still feel that way.

 

I have also not seen many of the Best Picture winners, and knowing that many of them were based on books, I decided not to read the books ahead of time. The Godfather is next after Steinbeck. But I made one exception, and that was Gone with the Wind.

 

No, I’d never read it or seen Victor Fleming’s adaptation, but, from what I knew about it, I figured it was one of those truly American experiences that I couldn’t pass up. So I didn’t. I read it from Thanksgiving to Kansas Day, 2017-2018. I didn’t know what to expect. But, what I can say is Margaret Mitchell’s 418,053-word novel is nothing short of an amazing stroke of genius. Throughout all 1,000+ pages of Scarlett O’Hara’s life, I was enthralled, saddened, enraged, and thoroughly entertained. Gone with the Wind is my unrivaled favorite book. Ever. It’s truly a masterpiece.

 

As hard as it was, I had to keep my expectations in check for the movie version of this one. The 12th winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture was the first color film to win the award in 1940. And, while the book was obviously better than the movie, the adaptation is incredible in its own right. I was thrilled to have watched it, to see Scarlett’s life jump off the page in Vivien Leigh’s blue eyes and slightly cocked right eyebrow was an incredible experience and it’s one that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

 

Just as a warning, this is a pretty long post.

 

Plot

If you don’t know, Gone with the Wind is the epic story of the romance between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). At first, manipulative Scarlett is enthralled with the sensitive and introspective Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). At the dawn of the war, Ashley announces that he will marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland; she’s actually still alive, one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. At age 101, she’s still on fire, having recently sued FX for defamation) Scarlett does everything in her power to win Ashley back, never quite getting over her love of him. This ruins all of her other relationships.

 

Along the way, she runs into Butler and the two form an unlikely bond. Scarlett is shallow and manipulative and Rhett is a brute of a man, only concerned with his own profit and his own well-being. Naturally, their romance doesn’t work. But it’s the journey to the end of the romance that is the amazing part of this story.

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Being more than 1,000 pages, the book naturally has a very thick and complicated plot, interspersed with Scarlett’s long, internal dialogues. For a movie to really do justice to the book, it has to be long. And it is. Checking in at just a hair less than four hours, this movie is the longest of the Best Picture winners. And yet, those four hours blaze by. There’s not a dull moment in the film, even after some plot points were cut from the book version.

 

The more I think about this movie, though, the more I think that, if it were to be made today. This book would make an excellent television mini series on Hulu or Netflix. That way, you wouldn’t need to cut a whole lot from the book. 1.

 

Writing/Dialogue

A whole lot of people helped with the writing of  Gone with the Wind, but it really falls on two people: Margaret Mitchell for the book and Sidney Howard for the screenplay. The film won Howard an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

 

In general, the dialogue is very colloquial and very southern. This is to be expected and it’s fairly true to the book. However, the movie doesn’t have as many offensive terms as the book does. More on that below.

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The only supposed flaw with the film’s writing is that it is a little heavy-handed at times. Late in the film, Scarlett has to tell you “money is the only thing that matters.” In the book, this was explained over hundreds (trust me, hundreds) of pages. So I don’t see this as a huge problem. It’s a four-hour movie, for goodness sake, you can’t show everything that a character is thinking and still make it a good movie. So, sometimes you have to spell it out for your audience. 1.

 

Sound

Max Steiner, the “ole reliable” composer of that time was hired to compose Gone with the Wind. It earned him an Oscar nomination.

 

It was a common occurrence in classic cinema to have music for every stinking second of the film, a trend that carries over to today in some instances. This score, like Steiner’s other works, is grand and “verbose” in its approach.

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But the music can be a little melodramatic at times, too. I’m kind of a crusty old man about this but a movie’s score should match the tone exactly. There were time this didn’t happen the way I wanted it to.

 

But this was made up for by the regular sound editing, with the film receiving an Oscar nomination for this, too. When there was no music, the effects filled the dead air nicely. This is particularly true during very “heavy” scenes. When it comes to tone, this helped to set it. 1.

 

Set Design

Gone with the Wind is the first film in which the set is a MAJOR character in the film. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War (Sherman’s March to the Sea, in particular), Gone with the Wind is impressive in its scope and faithful recreation of the southern antebellum society. The set pieces include every little detail that one would expect to find in southern aristocrat society: the huge dresses, the big beautiful wagons, and the ornate furniture. All of these pieces appear, on the surface, to invoke some kind of southern utopia before the war. History tells us otherwise, for sure, and the good news is that because of war’s effect on people, that image comes crumbling down.

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One unique feature of this movie that is not present today, is the use of paints and paper mache. Tara, Scarlett’s girlhood home of a plantation, only exists as a painting and a paper mache mockup far off in the distance. The movie was shot almost exclusively in southern California and the use of large backdrops helped to set the scene when large plantations couldn’t be used. 1.

 

Cinematography

Being the first color film to win Best Picture, Gone with the Wind could only be made in color. Ernest Haller is the credited cinematographer for the movie (Lee Garmes being uncredited) and the film is really a zenith is creative photography. Taking advantage of the new medium of color film, Gone with the Wind made me “ship my pants” when it comes to its sheer beauty.

 

Full of lush greens (the color associated with Scarlett in the book) and vibrant reds (the color of love), this movie jumps off the screen with color and I loved it. In my dabbling in photography, I love to use color to show off a scene. So, naturally, I tend to favor very colorful movies.

 

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some influences from the black and white stuff, too. The primary one was the use of light and shadow. I’ve written about this often for other movies like No Country for Old Men and The Godfather, but when it comes to using light and shadow for color films, this one is it.

 

One scene in particular sticks out to me, and that’s when Melanie is giving birth on a very hot day to young Beau. As the day ages and the shadows lengthen, Beau has still not come, prolonging Melanie’s suffering. The sun shines through the windows of the home in Atlanta and each actor is only visible through their own shadows. Working and speaking against a solid wall of orange, each actor’s black shadow draws you in to their finest movements. When it comes to cinematography, this movie rewrote beautiful in 1939. 1.

 

Acting

Gone with the Wind features many stirring performances, such as Olivia De Havilland as Melanie and Leslie Howard as Ashley. But, the two most coveted roles in Hollywood at the time went to Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett, and Clark Gable who plays Rhett Butler.

 

Leigh, a British actress who won her first of two Best Actress awards for her portrayal of Scarlett. She was picked to play the lead character after an intensive talent search that took almost two years (Gable was pegged right away by producer David O. Selznick).

 

Scarlett O’Hara is a beautiful, manipulative, and shallow southern belle whose only goal in life seems to be to find a man (preferably Ashley) and marry him. From this very simple start, the rest of Scarlett’s story forms. When Ashley falls through her fingers, she spends the rest of the story obsessing over ways to get him back.

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Scarlett is shrewd and somewhat uncaring throughout most of the picture. She often puts the needs of herself in front of others, acting in self interest even if it comes at the expense of others that she loves or is related to. She only does what’s right for Scarlett and mostly for nobody else.

 

By the time she’s done, she’s ruined every meaningful relationship she’s had and doesn’t seem to realize it. Scarlett is our heroine that is both impossible to root for and root against. Leigh is brilliant as Scarlett O’Hara. She possesses the very essence of Scarlett, the black hair, the green eyes, and the slightly raised eyebrow. Vivien Leigh is perfect. We’ll see her again when I review A Streetcar Named Desire. This role is the one that she was the most known for. Later in life, Leigh suffered crippling depression and died at age 53 from tuberculosis.

 

Clark Gable was well-established by the time he starred in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Known as “The King,” Gable was the best example of Hollywood machismo up to that point. He was perfect to play Rhett Butler.

 

Butler, a detestable rogue in polite society, he’s made gold hand over fist in the smuggling business. Rhett is the kind of cagey, unabashed smartass that is the perfect compliment and opposite of Scarlett. He, like her, puts his own needs before others, but is smart enough when it comes to Scarlett and his love for her that it’s ultimately his downfall. But he’s smart enough to get out from underneath his toxic, late-movie marriage to Scarlett with one of the best lines in movie history.

Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind" 1939 MGM
** B.D.M.
Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind” 1939 MGM ** B.D.M.

Rhett doesn’t give a hoot about any kind of expectation about him and he doesn’t mind mixing it up with the hated occupying Yankees when the need suits him. Rhett is violent, too. He drinks like it’s going out of style and it affects his relationships. He loves hard and lives fast.

 

Like Leigh, this is the role that Gable is probably the most known for, and interestingly enough, he hated this part. It wasn’t a movie he was interested in and refused to read the book at first after his wife, Carole Lombard, bought it for him.

 

For him, though, this role was also the pinnacle of his power. In 1942, his beloved wife died during a plane crash. His career went downhill from there. He even enlisted in the Army later that same year. He died in 1960, after finishing his comeback movie The Misfits. For more information about Gable, check out this podcast of the relationship between Lombard and the anxious and self-loathing Gable. 1.

Directing

The story of Gone with the Wind’s directors is almost as interesting as the story itself. Originally, the movie was going to be directed by George Cukor. After Cukor and Gable didn’t get along, Cukor was replaced with Victor Fleming. Ultimately, it was Fleming who won Best Director for this epic.

 

I’ve struggled all week to ascertain my exact feelings of Gone with the Wind and this particular section is the hardest one to write. It always has been, of course. This movie isn’t some kind of anti-Nazi story, like we’d expect to see at this time in 1939. It’s not some political drama or social satire, either.

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No, Gone with the Wind is an epic tale and an essential American experience that all should embark upon at least once. But, it’s also a slice of revisionist history, portraying the American south as a utopia, when we all know it wasn’t. The book and the movie both skirt past the horrors of slavery and racism, as well as endorsing a classist society. This is a world in which the upper crust of society looks down upon all the lower classes with disgust and contempt. This is a society which treats women as fragile beings, not actual humans. It’s absurdly restrictive against women.

 

And then there’s the infuriatingly insensitive treatment of African Americans and their plight as slaves in this country. The slaves usually have a one-track mind, can’t do anything without orders, and just want their lives to return to normal. The exception to this is Scarlett’s long-time house servant Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel. She’s often the voice of reason to Scarlett and she’s someone that knows what’s best for her.

 

But for all its shortcomings and questionable endorsements, this is why Gone with the Wind is great. It’s a beautifully written and stunningly shot piece of revisionist history. It encourages the discussion, even to this day, about what is insensitive and what isn’t. Some people believe the story is too racist and sexist to be worthy of being seen, while others don’t believe that. I’m in a third camp: yes, it certainly does have flaws, but it should be seen to encourage discussion about those flaws. What is America without a little discourse?

 

I know, I know. I railed against Driving Miss Daisy for this very same reason. But, here’s the difference: Gone with the Wind doesn’t try to hide it the same way that Driving Miss Daisy does. Driving Miss Daisy tried to make a feel-good movie, but under the skin, it’s really about a black man who just drove around a bitter old Jewess for decades before he got any respect. And maybe I’m totally off the mark here. I’ve always found it better to be on the inclusive side of history rather than the exclusive, so it’s odd for me to defend a film like this. Some believed that it glorified slavery, but I disagree. I think it simply shows that slavery WAS a part of American history, and certainly not a good part, either. While Gone with the Wind the movie doesn’t glorify slavery, it also refuses to address the horrors of it. It just states it as a thing that’s happening. The point is: I can see both sides of the coin here, and I’d no problem with you if, after watching or reading it if you feel differently and want to call me on it.

Additionally, Gone with the Wind is so good because it turns our expectations of who is good and who isn’t on its head. Scarlett and Rhett are two very, VERY flawed people that are in a marriage that is doomed from the beginning. Scarlett’s inability to get over herself and Ashley forces Rhett to become a monstrosity of a husband. Rhett’s badness was in him, too. Gone with the Wind allows us to question what we think we like and who the people are that we root for. It shows us that, in an era of good beating evil and a “whitewashing” of American society, not everything is so clear cut, so black and white. 1.

 

Bonus Points

I’ve given a lot of 10s of late, and this movie is no different. Rather than just saying that this one is a 10, I decided to make one of the greatest movies of all time earn it. I’m giving an extra point to the set and cinematography. Finally, an extra point goes to Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy. Not only did she knock this one out of the park, she was also the first African American actress to win an Oscar, Best Supporting Actress for this film.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

Gone with the Wind won the 12th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 29, 1940 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat out Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz (my Kansas roots means this is one of my favorite films), and Wuthering Heights for Best Picture. Y. Frank Freeman presented the award and it was accepted by David O. Selznick, producer, on behalf of Selznick International and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In total Gone with the Wind was nominated for 13 awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress (both McDaniel and de Havilland), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Color, Film Editing, Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Music, Original Score, and Sound Recording. In total, it won eight awards: Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Color, Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. It also received two honorary Academy Awards. Initially successful at the box office, Gone with the Wind is the most successful movie ever made, after adjusting for inflation. It’s 13 nominations and 10 awards were eye-popping for the time and stood as records until Ben Hur won 11 awards in 1959.

 

Other winners that night were Robert Donat winning Best Actor for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Thomas Mitchell winning Best Supporting Actor for Stagecoach. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope for the first of his 19 times appearances.

 

Next week

Take a deep breath. We made it through Gone with the Wind. Next week, I’m looking at the Best Picture winner from two years later, How Green Was My Valley, the film that famously beat Citizen Kane for the Academy Award that year. After that, it’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The French Connection, Braveheart, and Grand Hotel.

12 Comments

  1. Great review Keltin! I saw this movie many years ago and would like to see it again after reading this 😊

    Like

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