Saturday, December 6, 2014

Movie – Gone with the Wind (1939)

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 Atlanta, Georgia, 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.

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 Paris).  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 Jurassic Park, 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. 

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.


  1. Interesting review!

    GWTW is probably the most important movie ever made. It is the gateway between what Hollywood was, and what it became. In scope, technical achievement and pure epic bravura, GWTW pointed the way to what the grand cinematic experience could be.

    I got the sense from your review that this may have been the first time you watched it? (I may be totally wrong). This film is an overwhelming experience, with larger than life events and characters spanning multiple years on either side of an awful war that eternally changed a country and destroyed a way of life. Due to its scale it's not a movie that can be seen too frequently, but in the future do give it another viewing. Now that you know the story and characters, you might enjoy it more as an overall immersive experience.

    Here is a link to my review:

  2. I am actually quite in line with you, Chip. You have to respect the quality and sheer scale of this movie, but like you I cared little for Scarlett. When Rhett gives her the finger in the end I felt quite satisfied. That is not a character I feel like spending 4 hours with.
    I understand however that many, particularly women, find Scarlett a liberating character who defies the constrictions of her gender and class to get what she wants. From me however she gets no points from being a selfish asshole.

    1. I have an aunt who has read Gone with the Wind more times than she can count. It's easily her favorite book of all time.

  3. I hear you, but I'm not sure that she is intended to be someone that we like! Scarlett is representation of the South, before, during and after the war (not a nice place at any of these times, except for the privileged before the war). From the website describing the character:

    "What does Scarlett Hara's growth of character Symbolise?

    Scarlett’ O Hara’s growth reflects the development and change of the South from a leisure society to a war torn nation and later emerging as a survivor. Scarlett is portrayed initially as a spoiled teenager who grows into a hard-working widow and later transforms into a wealthy opportunist. Scarlett ‘O Hara represents both the Old and New South with her growth reflecting the transformation of the South during the Civil War. She is romantically drawn to Ashley who represents the idealized world of manners and chivalry but gets adapted to the harsh opportunism of the New South as she clings to Rhett who like her represents a mix of the old and new."

    Scarlett represents an attitude and a way of life meeting its (welcome) demise and reemerging with a new perspective on a rearranged world.

    Anyway, it's terrific that GWTW is still the subject of reviews and discussion 70+years after its release!

    1. Thanks for the link. I have no plans to ever watch this movie again. I have no question on its place in history or the epic scale of it. I didn't misunderstand of misread that when I watched it. Unfortunately, it has Scarlett O'Hara as a main character, and that will not change no matter how many times I watch it.

      You may be right that we are not supposed to like her. Just because it is intentional doesn't mean it is something I want to see, though. I couldn't wait for the film to be over so I didn't have to spend any more time with this horrible person. That's not a recipe for a re-watch, even if the film was 90 minutes long.

  4. Somehow, this post slipped under my radar.

    Gone with the Wind is the first great film of the sound era in a lot of ways, "great" in terms of scope and ambition. There's a lot to like in it, but it's never a film that I like as much as I think I should. So in a sense, I think it's a great movie, but at times it struggles to be a good one.

    1. That's a good way to describe it. It's a film that one respects a great deal, but doesn't necessarily enjoy to the fullest.

  5. Fun read, didn't know many of the main GWTW performers hated their characters. I would rate Gone With The Wind a bit higher than you did. It's overlong and somewhat glorifies slavery, but I still think it holds up pretty well as a good story. The music, the photography, the performances. There's a lot to like. The turbulent relationship where you don't quite know how Rhett and Scarlett feel about each other is my favorite aspect of the film.

    1. I don't really have an issue with the story; it's mostly the character of Scarlett O'Hara.