Thursday, February 10, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Gone With the Wind (1939)

Welcome to a rather unusual entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

I say unusual because today's subject is a film about which I had very strong mixed feelings, in a way I'm not sure I've experienced watching a classic movie.  Gone With the Wind is of course considered one of the all-time great epic films; adjusted for inflation it's still, over eighty years later, the highest grossing film ever made.  Seriously, based on 2020 ticket prices this movie made just shy of $1.9 billion DOMESTICALLY, almost $900 million more than current domestic box office champion Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  So suffice it to say this record is not likely to ever be broken.  Like, ever.  Pretty staggering considering its 220-minute running time.  

But back to mixed feelings.  Gone With the Wind is, from a cinematic standpoint, a stunning achievement in filmmaking; massive in scope, visually breathtaking, pro-feminist in a roundabout way, well ahead of its time in dealing frankly with issues the Hays Code tended to stifle, and boasting numerous great melodramatic performances.  This is epic 1930s filmmaking at its finest (minus the score, which is so ever-present in every scene it fails in its primary task of heightening the drama).

As political commentary goes though, this film is pretty wretched.  Based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel, GWTW is told from the point of view of Scarlett O'Hara, a wealthy southern debutante-turned-businesswoman trying to maneuver her way through Civil War/Reconstruction Era society.  But thanks to Mitchell's Jim Crow south upbringing and the impression left on her by films like Birth of a Nation, the novel and its movie adaptation are steeped in revisionist Lost Cause myth, rather shamelessly whitewashing the horrors of slavery and presenting the African-American characters as crudely drawn stereotypes - well-treated house servants without a need for independence.  The Yankees are presented (mostly offscreen) as ruthless conquerors who burned the beautiful Old South to the ground, the carpetbaggers as opportunistic parasites exploiting the decimated post-war economy.  The whitewashing goes so far there's actually a scene where Ashley Wilkes chides Scarlett for employing white ex-cons at low wages, saying something to the effect of "I can't support building a business on other people's misery."  STUNNING lack of self-awareness there, Ash.  To her credit, Scarlett calls him out with "You didn't seem to mind using slaves," and he replies "We didn't treat them poorly."  Holy shit dude.  Even for the late 1930s this blatant disregard for the ugly truths about slavery seems shocking to me.  And yes, I know segregation was alive and well, Jim Crow was still fully in effect, and apparently the agrarian elegance of the Old South was still being romanticized.  Still given the borderline insidiousness of this misrepresentation, it's pretty shocking this film was so universally well-received 75 years after the end of the Civil War.
Now that's out of the way let's talk about Gone With the Wind as a piece of film spectacle.  Director Victor Fleming (replacing George Cukor and on loan from his Wizard of Oz gig) has crafted a monumental cinematic work, using every part of the frame to give us sprawling Technicolor vistas of green fields, purple sunsets, red-orange fires, and opulent mansion interiors.  And of course there's the film's master shot of Scarlett scanning the town square for the local doctor as the camera cranes back to reveal hundreds upon hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers, a shot that seems to go on forever, unveiling the cruel devastation of battle and punctuating the shot with a tattered rebel flag waving in the wind (My own personal interpretation of this shot was "Look at all this death, all for this dilapidated notion of Confederate independence - I hope it was worth it.").  So visually, especially in the passages dealing with the war, this film has no shortage of magnificent cinematography.

Likewise the performances, starting with Vivien Leigh in the role that made her a star.  Though British, Leigh captures the southern belle affectation perfectly and takes us on a journey with this character.  We find her self-important and manipulative as she tries underhandedly to win Ashley's affections and trades mean-spirited barbs with philandering scoundrel Rhett Butler.  Later as the war rips apart her home and finances we can't help but admire her staying power and work ethic in rebuilding her life.  And still later we grow to resent her again as she takes for granted everything and everyone she has.  Scarlett has to be one of the most conflicted and flawed protagonists in film history, admirable as a proto-feminist icon but unlikable in her use of other people to achieve her own ends.  Another standout is Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton, who marries Ashley and becomes Scarlett's sister-in-law when Scarlett marries her brother Charles.  Melanie is Scarlett's support system, always there for her even as Scarlett repeatedly attempts to steal Ashley away from her.  Melanie is better than Scarlett deserves.  

And of course the third noteworthy performance is Hattie McDaniel as Mammy the house servant, strong-willed and brutally honest, a role that did serve to change the way audiences and filmmakers approached black characters.  McDaniel was nominated for and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, a double-first, though ironically she had to sit in a segregated section of the room during the ceremony.  In a world where progress isn't a straight line, Gone With the Wind can at least be credited with opening that door, even if its intentions as near-propaganda are somewhat reprehensible.

As for the other lead performance, I found Clark Gable rather distractingly out of place in this film.  Despite the story taking place in the 1860s, Gable struck me as decidedly 1930s dapper leading man and it took me out of the film a bit every time he was onscreen.  He was charismatic of course, but in the wrong kind of way, perhaps partly because he didn't even attempt to adopt a southern drawl, perhaps because his is such a distinctive personality he never disappeared into the character at all.  It would be like Robert Redford having been cast as Superman - you're not seeing Superman, you're seeing Redford in a Superman costume.

One area I haven't yet touched on is the expansive narrative, taking us through the Civil War well into Reconstruction, through Scarlett's three marriages and numerous losses of loved ones.  I was surprised to find numerous contemporary reviews agreed with me that the first half of the film is wholly superior to the second.  The passages dealing with the war and its effect on the local residents were engaging and at times quite harrowing; Rhett and Scarlett's narrow escape from Atlanta, transporting Melanie and her newborn baby, along with house servant Prissy, is a visually thrilling sequence.  Once the story centers on Scarlett building her lumber business and finally getting together with Rhett though, the scope of the picture narrows considerably and settles into somewhat trashy melodrama, piling on tragedy after tragedy, all delivered at a pace so frantic one barely has time to process each development before the next comes along.  It felt to me like the film had spent so much time letting the first 150 minutes breathe it had to race to the finish line to cover the final hour of material.  And the finale is so open-ended I was frankly baffled what I should take away from it.  A story this long, covering this much ground in this much detail, concluding with its primary character relationship unresolved felt incongruous, like a rambling novel ending the way a short story might.  Jesus, Grandpa, what'd you read me this thing for??

So like I said, Gone With the Wind left me with intensely mixed feelings, both in terms of its storytelling and its sociopolitical bent.  The first half is compelling Hollywood spectacle, the second over-the-top domestic drama with an unsatisfying conclusion.  The film advanced the notion of the strong central female character and noble, assertive black characters, but grotesquely downplayed the shameful American episode known as slavery, portraying the northern army fighting to free the slaves and preserve the union as invisible antagonists and the slaver plantation owners as heroic victims.  The film was a product of its time, and ultimately succeeds in what it set out to do - present a sweeping romantic portrait of the Old South on a grand, majestic scale.  So while I have significant moral issues viewing it through a 21st century lens, I'll be fair in my overall rating.

I give Gone With the Wind ***1/2 out of ****.

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