#29) Gone with the Wind (1939)
OR “A Movie Divided”
Directed by Victor Fleming
Written by Sidney Howard. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell.
Class of 1989
In the three years since I wrote my original “Gone with the Wind” post, the tone of this blog has evolved, and I’ve wanted to revise and expand this post to reflect that change. Also, in light of recent national events (as well as this film making headlines again), I felt that now was the best time to rewatch “Gone with the Wind” through the lens of our national dialogue about systemic racism. As always, this is a reminder that no single write-up can answer every question that this movie raises. Consider this post the beginning of a longer conversation we as a nation need to have about race relations and the continued impact of the Confederacy.
Also, brace yourselves: This is the Horse’s Head’s very first three-parter!
The Plot: In 1861 Georgia, spoiled plantation daughter Scarlett O’Hara pines over her neighbor Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Upon learning that Ashley is to be engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), Scarlett throws a passive aggressive tantrum at their announcement party, much to the amusement of fellow guest Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). When the Civil War breaks out, Scarlett’s world is turned upside down, and through her hardship is forced to mature into an independent, shrewd business woman. This growth occurs simultaneously with her on-again, off-again attractions to Rhett Butler, which complicates her feelings for Ashley. There’s plenty of drama in this iconic, masterful…love letter to the Confederate South!? To quote another movie, fasten your seat belts.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the most popular and influential American films produced” and “possibly the definitive example of filmmaking in the Hollywood studio era.” The work of composer Max Steiner, as well as the main cast, are highlighted. An essay by author Molly Haskell briefly touches upon the film’s problems, but is mostly of celebration of Scarlett O’Hara’s subversion of the female movie character tropes of the day.
But Does It Really?: It seems that in recent years “Gone with the Wind” has finally been removed from the “Casablanca“/”Citizen Kane” list of quintessential classic films and added to the “Birth of a Nation” list of important yet increasingly problematic American movies. “Gone with the Wind” is still the pinnacle of studio system filmmaking (ironic since it was a co-production with independent producer David O. Selznick), with an epic scope that no other movie from the era can match, and it spent the majority of the 20th century as an oft-referenced, oft-parodied cultural icon. This all being said, “Gone with the Wind” is a romanticized take on the Confederacy that due to its phenomenal success continues to create issues in our culture today, and its racist overtones permeate the entire film, even in scenes that don’t explicitly involve the slave characters. While the film’s entertainment value has plummeted in recent years, its historical and cultural significance is still being felt with a strength that very few movies of the era still possess. No argument for NFR inclusion, but the days of “Gone with the Wind” as one of the greatest movies of all time are, well….gone with the wind.
Everybody Gets One: Like many British movie stars of the era, Leslie Howard first found success on the London stage, followed by a transition to Broadway, and eventually Hollywood. When approached for “Gone with the Wind”, Howard felt he was all wrong for Ashley Wilkes, but David Selznick enticed him with an additional offer to produce and star in another movie (1939’s “Intermezzo”). Howard was devoted to the Allied cause during WWII, and was tragically killed in action when the aircraft carrying him was shot down over the coast of Spain.
Wow, That’s Dated: Oh, we will talk about what’s dated in this movie; you just keep reading.
Title Track: Margaret Mitchell chose the title “Gone with the Wind” from a line in a poem by Ernest Dowson: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind”. Mitchell used the line as a reference to the loss of the Southern way of life (and/or lost love). Side note: the more flowery explanation of the title in the film’s opening segment was written for the movie, and was not featured in the original novel. Allegedly, Margaret Mitchell did not appreciate this addition.
Seriously, Oscars?: The last major release of the Greatest Year in Movies, “Gone with the Wind” opened to blockbuster business, becoming the most successful film of all time (and adjusted for inflation, still is). Two months later “Wind” entered the Oscar race with a record-breaking 13 nominations. The film won eight Oscars (also a record), plus an additional two tech awards. Among its wins: Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win or even be nominated for an Oscar). The “Gone with the Wind” sweep was such a foregone conclusion that first-time emcee Bob Hope jokingly dubbed the ceremony “a benefit for David Selznick”.
Before we get to “Other notes”, I felt that a few of the film’s production notes deserved their own section called…Production Notes.
- Margaret Mitchell based “Gone with the Wind” on her family’s recollections of growing up in the Civil War/Reconstruction Era. The novel caught the eye of several studios before it was published. David Selznick was initially skeptical about the novel’s film possibilities, but his story editor Kay Brown convinced him of the potential.
- Pre-production lasted 2 1/2 years! Playwright Sidney Howard was hired to write the screenplay, and George Cukor signed on to direct. When Howard refused to fly out to Hollywood for rewrites, subsequent drafts were penned by playwrights Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten, among others.
- The film’s other delay came from waiting for popular choice Clark Gable to become available. Gable initially had no interest in playing Rhett Butler, but finally agreed when Selznick offered him enough money that he could divorce his wife and marry Carole Lombard.
- The search for Scarlett O’Hara is still the biggest casting call in movie history (though most of it was exaggerated for publicity). Mitchell wanted Miriam Hopkins, Cukor lobbied for Katharine Hepburn, and popular opinion sided with Tallulah Bankhead. Practically every actress in Hollywood auditioned for the part, but only the two finalists auditioned in Technicolor: Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh. Goddard was very close to winning the role, but her then-unconventional common law marriage to Charlie Chaplin proved too controversial. 25 year old unknown British actor Vivien Leigh was in Hollywood while her partner Laurence Olivier was filming “Wuthering Heights“, and was introduced to David Selznick by his brother Myron (Leigh’s theatrical agent at the time). Leigh won over David on the strength of her performance in “Fire Over England“, as well as a reading and screen test with Gable. Leigh joined the cast in January 1939, a month after the film started production!
- The film’s biggest setback occurred three weeks into filming when Selznick fired director George Cukor. Selznick felt that Cukor’s work wasn’t dynamic enough (and there is speculation that Gable didn’t like working with an openly gay director). MGM’s Victor Fleming was hired to replace Cukor, leaving “The Wizard of Oz” midway through its production (but that’s another story). Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were both devastated by the replacement, and secretly continued to meet with Cukor on weekends to develop their characters. Fleming filmed the bulk of the movie (and reshot most of Cukor’s work), but was temporarily replaced by Sam Wood when he took a hiatus due to exhaustion.
Okay, now we can get to the film proper….in Part Two!