Thursday 21 January 2010

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming
Stars: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

So this is Gone with the Wind? I've heard so much about this film: about how it's the greatest love story of all time, how it's the epic to end all epics, how there is nothing like it in the history of cinema. It's not just well placed here in the IMDb Top 250, the American Film Institute can't stop lavishing it with praise: on their annual lists it was the fourth greatest American movie of all time, the fourth greatest epic and the second greatest love story, it has the second greatest score and the greatest quote of them all. It swept the Oscars in 1939, leaving with no less than ten of them in what has been described as Hollywood's greatest year, a record that stood until Ben-Hur won eleven twenty years later. Adjusting for inflation, it's the highest grossing movie ever made, and never mind those expensive 3D IMAX tickets Avatar is selling like hot cakes, Gone with the Wind still holds the record for the most movie tickets sold. The success wasn't just American either: it was such a hit in London after opening in April 1940 that it ran continuously for four years during the Blitz.

So why is it so highly regarded by all and sundry? Well now that I've finally seen it I can understand why, but there's also a massive and fundamental flaw that I just can't get past, which means that I don't see how I can give it my highest rating and keep a good conscience. I'll get to this flaw shortly. Before I do, I'd like to point out that the picture does excel technically and the scale it works to is massively impressive. Then again, producer David O Selznick spent $3.9m on the film, only Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and Hell's Angels having exceeded that sum previously. Every actor in the film does a superb job, and as can be expected in a four hour movie there are a whole bunch of them: over 50 speaking roles and a couple of thousand extras.

Clark Gable doesn't just act Rhett Butler, he exudes him. Even though he didn't want to take the job to begin with, having been burned by a period role before (Clark Gable was many things but whoever thought he should play Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell ought to have been sacked with extreme prejudice), he does it so well that it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part, not least Gary Cooper who turned the role down because he thought the film would be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. It's Rhett Butler that Gable will always be remembered for, even though by the time he died in 1960, two days after finishing The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe, he had made 67 sound movies on top of his few silent film appearances, and was known as 'The King of Hollywood', having literally been crowned with that title in the thirties.

Vivien Leigh, the unknown from England who landed the role everyone in Hollywood wanted for their own (and I mean everyone, the list is a Who's Who of Hollywood actresses, even if you restrict it to merely those who completed screen tests for the part), is spot on as Scarlett O'Hara, the central focus for the entire movie. She's believable as a rich bitch and she's believable as the woman who does what she must when she must, though that sounds rather unfortunately like an apology for her actions. The consequent balancing act between weak and strong is not an easy one to manage, especially for an unknown starring opposite some of the greatest names in the industry. Then again she was dating Laurence Olivier at the time.

Leslie Howard has his own balancing act to manage as Ashley Wilkes, juggling between the spineless man and the honourable warrior, and he's just as good as Leigh. His wife Melanie is whiter than white, too much so, but in the able hands of Olivia de Havilland such a saintly portrayal is at least believable. And above all of these superb performances, my personal favourite is Hattie McDaniel's as Mammy, the big black slave who effectively runs the show at Tara, the O'Hara homestead. With over seventy films behind her already, many of which I've now seen and enjoyed, this one brought her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her simultaneously the first African American to be nominated and to win, even though Georgia law prevented any of the black actors from attending the premiere in Atlanta.
The background that all of these players act against is nothing short of epic. Margaret Mitchell's source novel isn't about Scarlett, it's about the demise of an entire nation, with Scarlett merely our guide through the War Between the States that caused the South to effectively cease to be. Selznick's film begins in 1861 on the eve of the war which runs through the entire first half and ends around the time of the intermission. He began as he meant to go on, the first scene shot being the epic burning of Atlanta, not the city but the ammunition dumps torched by retreating Confederates. This fire cost $25,000, raging 500 feet high from a 40 acre set and burned many old sets including the Great Wall from King Kong. It was shot by all seven Technicolor cameras then in existence in Hollywood and phone lines in Culver City were jammed because local residents thought MGM was burning.

This was only the first of many awesome set pieces, some of the most awesome seen on film at that time, including the justifiably legendary long pan across the stupendous numbers of Confederate wounded, which is what's stayed with me most from this film over the years since, not to mention all those stunning romantic sunsets and the endless sweeping staircases. All the way down the line the film is beautifully shot, which has a good deal to do with the production design of William Cameron Menzies. In fact Gone with the Wind marks the first time that anyone at all was credited with production design, purely because what Menzies did here went so far beyond the old position of Art Director.

In short, I'm not surprised at those ten Oscars and much of the rest of the legend. And so to the catch: who the hell am I supposed to care about in this picture? Other than Olivia de Havilland's saintly Melanie Wilkes, everyone in the film is either a pathetic wimp or an entirely unlovable waste of space. It doesn't matter how much money or influence each has, it doesn't matter how dashing they are or how beautiful their gowns are, they're all nobodies and I couldn't care what happened to any of them. In fact I'm not alone. Very few members of the principal cast apparently liked the characters they were playing and I can hardly blame them.

Rand Brooks as Scarlett's first husband, Charles Hamilton, objected to playing a wimp. Leslie Howard complained that his costumes made him appear like 'a fairy doorman'. Even Gable, who had fought playing a historical role, almost quit because he had to cry on film, and it's possible that his part, which runs to what Wikipedia calls 'physical brutality and low regard to women' may have been based on author Margaret Mitchell's first husband, who she divorced. Butterfly McQueen, another black actress in an important role as a childlike adult slave, even suggested that her character 'Prissy should have been slapped often, because she was horrid!' Malcolm X later said that 'when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.' Racial harmony this isn't, but then it was set in the slave owning South.

The character I liked least of all was Scarlett O'Hara who is truly despicable, one of the least likeable lead characters in movie history. I'd almost rather sit down to dinner with Hannibal Lecter. Scarlett starts the film as a rich brat who toys with her suitors, the Tarleton brothers, because she secretly loves her neighbour Ashley Wilkes. When she finally realises that she can't have him, because he's marrying someone else, she promptly hooks the nearest available man and doesn't care a hoot when he dies in the war, not even as a soldier. I'm sure you're wondering where Rhett Butler comes in, especially as the two have had exchanges already but she falls for him hard as a supposedly mourning widow, only to end up stealing her sister's fiancé instead for the money and position (sorry, to save Tara, right?).

Not only is she a blatant gold digger but she's a blatant gold digger at the expense of her family, which if anything is even worse. Are there levels to dishonourable behaviour that can be measured? I'm sure the Japanese could conjure something up. Anyway this second unloved, exploited and thoroughly miserable husband eventually dies too, leaving her free at last to marry Rhett, who she's already told outright to get the hell lost. It'll never happen, she tells him, not as long as she lives, but he's Clark Gable so he's not one to take no for an answer. I'm sure he ended up wishing he had, given that she promptly goes on to make his life a misery in the same way she did her other husbands, even though they manage to stay on speaking terms just long enough to produce a daughter.
How a film entirely devoid of romance can be seen as the greatest romance of all time, I fail to understand. No wonder the world is so screwed up if this is what women aspire to. I presume I'm not supposed to cheer at the death of her daughter and the break-up of her marriage, but I did, just like I cheered at the death of Jack in Titanic. The happiest part of the film for me was when she finally drove Rhett away too, because it was the first real piece of justice in the film. Of course Rhett isn't much of a catch either, being little more than an opportunist who makes money out of the misery of others. He spoils his daughter to the point of her death, but he does at least care about her, which puts him a cut above Scarlett at least.

Admittedly by no stretch of the imagination could I claim to be a romance fan. I know little about the genre and don't pretend to understand it. Hey, I'm a man, so what understanding could I have about how women's minds work? However I have seen some blatant tearjerkers and I've even surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying many of them, including a good degree of the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions list, not to mention such unashamed chick flicks as The Bridges of Madison County and others featuring people like, well, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. There's even one in particular that I enjoyed shortly before Gone with the Wind that could almost be called the precise polar opposite of this film.

Camille was made only two years earlier, in 1937, but it avoided Technicolor, sweeping grandeur and the whole epic scale that Gone with the Wind thrived on. The most important difference is that, while it may not have jerked my tears, it certainly succeeded in catching my emotions and I just plain cared what happened to the petulant heroine Marguerite, who begins the film as a spoiled brat just like Scarlett but eventually finds redemption in love. The why of it is half Greta Garbo's powerhouse performance and half the script that paints her far more vividly in black and white than Scarlett ever managed in colour, but the end result is that it's a joy and Gone with the Wind is almost an endurance test.

I've also travelled through the South, through Savannah and Charleston and Atlanta, and I've had the pleasure of encountering some of the kindest folks that I've ever met right there below the Mason-Dixon Line. I understand what southern hospitality is because I've experienced it first hand and I appreciate what the South did to make these people who they are. However I didn't see a single example of this in Gone with the Wind. So Scarlett screws up her life, even with all the chances she's given, and so does Rhett and so does Ashley and so does Charles and so does every other supposed lady or gentleman in Gone with the Wind. Well, my dear, to steal the legendary line from Clark Gable, frankly I don't give a damn. They just didn't deserve any better! I can't feel sorry for any of them, and if they are really what Margaret Mitchell's South was all about then why the heck didn't the Yankees start the war a couple of hundred years earlier and save everyone the trouble?

To be fair I should point out that I haven't read Mitchell's source novel, the only novel she published during her lifetime, one that took her seven years to write and which apparently included a decent amount of carefully researched historical accuracy. When I watched Gone with the Wind in 2004 I presumed that given the consistent quality otherwise, the flaws may have been inherent to the novel rather than Selznick's film, though of course that still doesn't excuse it. Now, I'm not so sure. I still haven't read the book but I have seen another David O Selznick epic production, one obviously intended to follow up on the grandeur that he so ably conjured up here.

Gone with the Wind is undeniably a great film, merely one that doesn't contain a jot of the romance it aspires to, but Duel in the Sun, made in 1946 with Selznick's girlfriend Jennifer Jones in the lead, is truly awful, one of the most overblown and badly cast films Hollywood ever made. It highlights ably just what Selznick could do to a movie in the very worst ways, so perhaps then Mitchell's novel, with its coverage of material the film ignored, such as the horrors of war and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan, isn't the biggest problem, it's merely what Selznick did with it.


Birgit Clark said...

Thursday, 21 January 2010
Gone with the Wind (1939)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

??? !!!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Eek. The joys of cut and paste code.

Thanks, Birgit. Fixed.