Friday, September 6, 2013

Gone With The Wind (Best Picture 1939)

I don't think I can say anything about Gone With The Wind that somebody hasn't already said. So how about if I just throw out a few random facts and opinions and see it that is interesting to anybody.

Margaret Mitchell only wrote one novel, and Gone With The Wind was it. She was living off of the rewards of this work, contemplating her follow-up, when she was killed in a car accident in 1949. 

Gone With The Wind is probably one of the best known movies of all times. Even if you haven't seen it (and I doubt how many people under 30 have seen it unless they're movie fans) you have heard of it.
I think it's generally forgotten that the movie starts with these words:
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..
So, okay....romanticize the South much? I may be a child of my time, but I find this pretty offensive. For sure if you look for the racism it is here. Moving on....
The slow and tranquil introduction to Tara and to the neighboring Wilkes' estate Twelve Oaks proves a painful comparison when, ninety minutes later the same scenes are shown but now the land is no longer green, the sky isn't blue, and the houses are destroyed. The symbolism is strong in these scenes.

Speaking of strong scenes, the Atlanta station scene where Scarlett is looking for the doctor and she walks through hundreds and hundreds of wounded! This isn't a computer graphic, people. This is real  Hollywood magic. It's a terrifically filmed scene. Epic.

However, the Seige of Atlanta, where the majority of the city is burned to the ground, is *not* as well filmed as the injured at the station is. While some of the scenes are obviously real, some of them seem to be photo-shopped together. The drama of the actors seems true, but the backgrounds sometimes seem fake.
Speaking of the actors, the cast is universally wonderful except for...and the women may disagree....what is it about Leslie Howard as Ashley!? What the heck is the appeal here? To me he is a whiner and a bland, lifeless man of straw. Blech! I don't know if it's the actor, or the role, or both, but I totally don't see the appeal of this guy. Sadly, Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the airplane he was riding in was shot down by Nazis.  
Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for her work here, and she absolutely deserves it. She carries this movie, from virginal and silly Scarlett in the first hour to wretched and sad Scarlett in the middle, to older and wiser Scarlett by the end. It truly is an unforgettable performance. She owns every scene she is in, and she totally holds her own with her terrific co-stars, which is saying something.  
Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress as Mammie. This was deserving, but in 1939 USA it was also quite surprising. McDaniel has several wonderful scenes, especially her give-and-take scenes with Clark Gable. Her work at the end, as their marriage crumbles, is amazing. She was the first African-American ever to be nominated and the first to win an acting Oscar. Watch for her if you watch this film; you'll be able to see just how good she is. She's a marvel.
By the way, when my wife first saw Hattie McDaniel she said she looked like Konishiki, the sumo wrestler from the 1980s. What do you think?

Clark Gable, of course, has the unenviable role of trying to portray a man in love pretending not to be in love; he does a great job, but I guess the Academy thought they had already given him an Oscar, so passed him over. Compared to Ashley, Rhett Butler is All Man. Maybe that's the point? He does a great job baiting and switching with Scarlett, and when his heart actually does break it's a sad sight indeed. Everyone remembers his last scene, but it's the build up TO that scene that makes the movie unforgettable.
Olivia DeHaviland was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress as Melanie. Throughout the film she is the moral heart of the story, just as Leigh as Scarlett is the catalyst for so much of the action. Her character is so wonderful that she is almost too good to be true; she seems at times to be a caricature. It's to DeHaviland's talent that she never quite crosses that line. Melanie seems to bridge the classes as well as the races; she makes a genuine effort to be good to Belle, the Atlanta prostitute, unlike all others in her society. In the same way that Scarlett doesn't recognize what she has with Rhett until it is too late, Scarlett doesn't realize just how important Melanie is to her, either. Melanie, of course, sees through Rhett's bluster and Scarlett's walls and does all she can to help keep them together.
Two more odd comments about the cast. Another familiar face, that of Dr. Meade, belongs to veteran character actor Harry Davenport. With this film, he managed to be in three Best Picture films in a row: Life and Times of Emile Zola (as a corrupt French Army officer), You Can't Take It With You (as a judge), and Gone With The Wind. He is also well-known as "Grandpa" in Meet Me In St. Louis and as Nick's father in The Thin Man Goes Home. He's one of my favorites, and it was fun to see him in such a large supporting role here. Recognize him?
Thomas Mitchell, who portrays Scarlett's father, won Best Supporting Actor this year. However, he didn't win it for his role in Gone With The Wind; he won for his work as the alcoholic doctor in Stagecoach. How odd is that?
Anyway, back to the movie. According to the narration, after the war is over, "another vicious invader....the carpet bagger" arrives. I guess we can tell where our sympathy is supposed to be.
It isn't a coincidence that Rhett (red) falls in love with Scarlett (red). Colors are important to this film, and I understand why it was filmed in color. Scarlett's sexiest dress is her red one; before she wears red, the local prostitute Belle Watkins is the only woman shown wearing that color. The petticoats that Mamie receives from Rhett are red, too. Scarlett's bed-coat is red. The famous dress that Scarlett makes from curtains in order to woo Rhett post-war is a beautiful green. Their daughter's name is Bonnie Blue. And black for mourning is worn over and over again. And of course gray and blue soldiers populate the entire story.
The best part of this film, for me, is the last half when it centers most on Scarlett and Rhett. Can anyone watch this movie and not realize just how much these two star-crossed lovers do in fact love each other? I will give you just one example to remind you if you haven't seen the film recently: Scarlett thinks she is getting fat after she has her daughter, so tells Rhett she wants a separate bed room. He, however, thinks this is because she is still in love with Ashley. This type of mis-communication tarnishes their entire relationship. The most dramatic moments of the film are between Rhett and Scarlett as they try desperately to show or hide how much they actually care for each other.  By the end, when they have to deal with the death of Bonnie and then the death of Melanie, it is just too much for their strained love to stand. That's what makes this an epic tragedy.
I was afraid of watching this movie because it is SO long. However, after the first half ("The War") is over, the second half (Reconstruction and Rhett & Scarlett's marriage) flies by. If you don't have time watch the whole thing, I recommend just watching the second disk. It's that great a movie that you'll enjoy even just watching half of it.

Gone With The Wind
*Academy Award Best Picture 1939*
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Victor Fleming
Screenplay by Sydney Howard
based on the book by Margaret Mitchell
according to the voice-over, this sounds like it was created for a 1960 re-release
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Dark Victory
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Of Mice And Men
The Wizard of OZ
Wuthering Heights
When I was in high school my social studies teacher told me that it is often said that 1939 was the best year Hollywood ever had. I've never forgotten that. This year I recognize all of the nominees, even if I haven't seen all of them. Let's start with The Wizard of OZ. I think I read that this is the motion picture that has been seen by more people all over the world than any other? Stagecoach is often called the movie that "made" John Wayne; it's a classic John Ford western that everyone should see at least once. I have seen Goodbye Mr Chips, both the original and the musical remake in the late Sixties with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark. It's a good movie; Robert Donat beat Clark Gable to win Best Actor for it. Love Affair with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer was remade twenty years later and became more famous as An Affair To Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a film by Frank Capra with down-home honest boy James Stewart fighting corrupt politician Claude Rains. I think I saw Of Mice And Men, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr in high school. Likewise, I seem to recall seeing a crazed Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, but it might have been something else. Ninotchka features Greta Garbo and Melvin Douglas; as I read the plot summary I feel as if I have seen it, but I don't recall it being all that interesting. Dark Victory features Bette Davis, but I am pretty sure I never saw it.

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