The Classic Civil War Drama
No film has more prestige than "Gone with the Wind" (1939), the classic soaper from David O. Selznick'sSelznick International Pictures and MGM. This romance has put more people in seats in theaters and watching on the various video formats over the years than any other film. Period. There is absolutely no debate about that. Yes, Titanic (1997) and many other mediocre films have grossed more money due to higher ticket prices, but this film was still being revived thirty and forty years after its release - to a good reception, without gimmicks, in its original format.
|Vivien Leigh costume test, 1939|
|Front and back, both classics|
In constant Dollars, it will always be a champion, and making around $400 million on a 1939 investment of less than $2 million, well, that ain't too shabby. That, of course, would not count all the ancillary merchandising - the DVD box sets, the soundtrack sales, the spin-offs and remakes - that have accumulated over the years. I highly doubt that Avatar will experience similar reverence, though you never know for sure.
Maybe they'll start an actual religion to Star Wars and it will eclipse "Gone With The Wind," they might just as well given the hype that series gets. It will give all those little stormtroopers even more reason to go out and buy those Star Wars legos and action figures, so it would be good for business. "Gone With the Wind" just remains in people's hearts, not their toy chests.
|Tragedy is about to strike - again.|
This is a tale of the South during the Civil War, marching to its doom despite being forewarned that defeat is inevitable. Several things make this film stand out head and shoulders above the pack. First, it has a classic anti-hero in Scarlet O'Hara, played to absolute perfection by English actress Viven Leigh. She is scheming, vindictive, self-centered and controlling. I think that, for a lot of people, her character is what makes the film special.
She hits home to many women (the lengthy book, of course, was written by a woman, Margaret Mitchell) as being real and straightforward while showing no remorse at all about being a manipulative little bitch.
|One definitely gets the impression that it was not a particularly happy set.|
Of course, others, including many women, will also find the scheming Scarlet unsympathetic as betraying the worst stereotypes in women, but are secretly drawn to her anyway, just as passing motorists are drawn to a traffic accident scene. In your head, you find her loathsome, but in your heart you are fascinated.
|One of the couple's happier moments.|
Clark Gable, though, as the cunning and perversely sentimental Northerner-turned-Southerner Rhett Butler, absolutely steals the film. That is an epic achievement, given the film's absolute, unyielding focus on Scarlet, but Gable somehow does it. He is the ultimate romantic hero, a walking romance-novel cover before there were romance novels. If you think of the term "dashing," an image of Gable as Butler may very well spring into your mind. In my opinion, and nobody ever will agree with me on this, Gable created the single greatest and best-realized character in film history - and perhaps all of literature, which I realize is a sweeping claim, but I'm making it anyway - by showing how Rhett knows what is coming, but fights both with and against it anyway. He is a hero not just for women, but for men as well. Knowing from the outset that the war is impossible to win given the disparity of forces, he joins the lost cause even after everyone else comes around to his opinion only because he feels it is the right thing to do and he hates seeing what losing does to those he loves.
|A Civil War Confederate ball.|
The supporting characters are also fine, but not at the same level as those two. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar as Scarlet's maid, but she really isn't in the film that much and is only tangential to the drama. Leslie Howard plays Ashley Wilkes coldly, a strange character who masks weakness with good intentions, while Olivia de Havilland provides complications but little eles as Ashley's love interest/cousin/wife Melanie. A broader point is made with this incestuous relationship about the ante-bellum south being closed and inward-looking, which is fine, but the character themselves are the weak link in the film.
|Scarlett at Tara.|
The battle scenes are few, but epic. A crane shot of Confederate casualties at a train marshaling yard has entered film history, and the "burning of Atlanta" scene is the best of its type, even all these years later. The sets and scenery in general are all legendary - the grand estate Tara, armed forays into a shantytown of the dispossessed, grand bedrooms where raw emotions are shown without filters.
The real key to this film's success, is none of the above. It may be encapsulated and defined in one word: sentimentality. Throughout the film, there is an air of sadness but ultimate hope that transcends all the drama. It is the rise and fall and rise and fall of life that trumps everything. The look on a Confederate soldier's face as defeat looms - the attitude of a loyal slave as his world crumbles just the same as that of the masters - Scarlet as she grieves her dead father - Rhett as he grieves his dead child - dying patients at a hospital - forlorn love, both by and toward Scarlet - sympathy for a clearly lost cause - sentimentality gushes from this film. It is what makes it great, and why it endures.
|A Northern Carpetbagger|
"Gone with the Wind" does not have quite the intelligence of a Citizen Kane. But what it lacks there, it more than makes up for in heart. Regardless of politics and justice and equality, this is film about people and their emotions, and it captures them as well as any film ever made.
|Hattie McDaniel at work|
So, this is the classic film that appeals to the heart instead of the head. Rhett Butler personifies that judgment, and his character defines the film. That is likely why it does not usually make the Top Ten lists, as people will vote for cleverness and artistry over emotion every time. But everyone knows this film, it is as popular or notorious or respected now as it ever was, and likely always will be. It is the last word on Southern life during the Civil War, and later obvious imitations like Cold Mountain can't touch it.
|A promotional picture of Scarlett|
One could justifiably dislike this film due to the racial relationships portrayed, and that is fair enough. Everyone draws their own line in different places. There undeniably were slaves at that time, and I believe that most viewers would agree that this film gives a somewhat idyllic and idealized portrayal of the master/servant relationship. There is definitely a place for films about slave rebellions and injustices toward them and the inherent cruelty of the entire system and the like, but this is not that film, so you take it or leave it on that basis. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to see the Atlanta premiere with his father, and if you have worries about the film being a corrupting influence or so on or so forth, well, it didn't seem to hurt him at all.
|The drive through burning Atlanta remains a cinema classic|
I think that if you are fair about it, you will accept that the slaves are shown as positively as possible, and they add something special to the film rather than being mere accessories to the rich landowners. Who cannot feel sadness seeing Everett Brown as Big Sam, the field foreman, marching off to battle the Yankees as Atlanta is on the verge of falling? Isn't there something universal about Butterfly McQueen as Prissy yelling "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies"? And who can't nod their heads in appreciation as Hattie McDaniel rolls her eyes every time Scarlet does something weird?
|Clark Gable at the premiere, January 17, 1940|
I've never heard of any of the African-American actors in this film ever saying a negative word about it, and I don't know why they would, given their characters' extremely sympathetic portrayal. Here's a thought: name another mainstream release from that period that employed that many Black actors, and to good effect. Tick tock, tick tock....
|One of the most famous scenes in film history, of Confederate dead and wounded|
|Scarlett holding court before the war.|
The direction by Victor Fleming is fine, though the film inevitably drags just a bit during the middle sections, between the downfall and resurgence. One could lump this film with "soap operas," but that would be the same as lumping The Beatles with average boy bands. You can do it, but it makes no sense. This film is in a class by itself, like it or hate it.
|"Frankly, my dear...."|
And, finally, the theme - "Tara's Theme" - by Max Steiner is instantly recognizable, and Rhett Butler's parting words - "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" - will remain a catch-phrase as long as film itself is remembered.