Gone with the Wind, based on the Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, was the pop culture phenomenon of the late 1930s. The book had created a sensation when it came out, and almost immediately people started talking about making a movie from it. There was no doubt in people’s minds who should play Rhett Butler – Clark Gable. On the other hand, the casting of Scarlett O’Hara has become the stuff of legend – so much so, that no one alive today even knows the true story anymore of exactly how Vivien Leigh got the part.
The production was fraught with problems. Not only was there recasting of some roles, but at various times the film’s screenwriter, cinematographer, and even the director, were replaced. This was the second film to come out in 1939 that original director George Cukor managed to get himself fired from. The first was The Wizard of Oz. In both cases Victor Fleming was brought in to replace him. Not much remains of what Cukor filmed in the final version of Gone with the Wind. And in Cukor’s defense, he was only a “transitional director” on The Wizard of Oz and had not had a chance to shoot any footage.
In addition to production issues, many of the main GWTW performers hated their characters. Gable only did the film to get enough money to divorce his wife at the time so he could marry Carole Lombard. Other actors hated playing weak men that were so far removed from who they were or the image they wanted to project. Butterfly McQueen disliked playing a negative stereotype of a black woman. Ironically, the single most detestable character in the film – Scarlett O’Hara – is the one whose performer probably liked her role the most.
Leigh had a hard time when Fleming replaced Cukor because Fleming saw O’Hara as what she was in the book – a horrible person – whereas Leigh wanted her presented much more sympathetically. The two had constant battles during filming, which is what may have led to some of the schizophrenic feel in the film over the nearly four hours of running time.
I’m not going to try to give a plot summary of such an epic film. Suffice it to say that it takes place in the American South before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara goes through men like Spinal Tap goes through drummers, and all the while Rhett Butler is there observing, commenting, and then ultimately marrying her.
In a year of great movies, Gone with the Wind was the most awarded. It received a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, winning 8 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It also received two other non-competitive Oscars. Gable did not win for Best Actor, but in an historic first, Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She was the first black person, male or female, to win an Academy Award. Just to emphasize how significant this was let me point out that when the film premiered in
she was not allowed to attend since segregation of the movie theater was
strictly enforced. Gable threatened to boycott the premiere himself in support
of her, and only attended once McDaniel urged him to go. Atlanta, Georgia
Gone with the Wind set a number of other records. It’s still the longest film to win Best Picture. Leigh’s onscreen time as Scarlett is the longest performance to win an Oscar. The film’s credited screenwriter, Sidney Howard, became the first person to be posthumously nominated and awarded. It is the first color film to win Best Picture. And it would not be until the early 1950s before another color film would win (An American in
In fact, “serious” films were still being shot in black and white until
the early 1960s.
The last line of the film – “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” – is very famous. So powerful was this film that it actually caused the Motion Picture Association to modify the Production Code to allow “damn” to be uttered onscreen. (Contrary to legend, the Hays Office did not fine the studio; the Production Code was altered in time for the premiere of this film.)
Finally, Gone with the Wind is far and away the true box office champ. Forget Avatar. Forget Titanic. Forget
E.T., Stars Wars, and all the others that had held the official record for most
money earned at the box office. When you
adjust for inflation Gone with the Wind made so much money that Avatar’s haul
is only a fraction of GWTW’s. Jurassic Park
It made 20 million dollars on its initial run and by 1942 it had made a total of 35 million dollars. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much today, but this was in an era when movie tickets sold for ten cents. They were selling for ten dollars when Avatar set the current record. It’s estimated that more than 200 million tickets were sold in the
U.S. alone for this film. The entire population of the U.S.
in 1940 was 132 million. One publication
estimated that two thirds of the population of the U.K. went to see this movie. Even without adjusting for inflation it took
until the 1960s before another film (The Sound of Music) surpassed Gone with
the Wind at the box office.
So, how do I go about rating this movie? I hate one of the lead characters – Scarlett O’Hara. It brought down the entire movie for me to a level where I would not normally recommend it. On the other hand, this movie’s place in film and pop culture history is unquestionable and everyone should make an effort to see it at some point in their lives. I will split the difference and give Gone with the Wind three stars.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Just a humorous postscript: one of the famous scenes from Gone with the Wind is when Rhett Butler is coming to visit a very poor at the time Scarlett. She has no dress suitable to wear when accepting him into her home. We see her tearing down the green velvet curtains hanging in her windows and she makes a new dress from them in time to receive Rhett.
In the 1970s Carol Burnett had her own sketch comedy show on TV. She did a nearly 20 minute spoof of Gone with the Wind (titled “Went with the Wind”) and in it she included a piece on this dressmaking scene that became one of the all time great visual jokes. Here is the clip of that.