Gone with the Wind

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

22 June

David O Selznick dies, 1965

On this day in 1965, one of the great names of Hollywood’s golden era died. David O (the O meant nothing at all) had been born into a movie family in 1902 and arrived in Hollywood in time for the talkie era, in 1926. By 1931, having worked at MGM and Paramount, he was head of production at RKO, 1933’s King Kong being one of his big successes. He moved back to MGM where he oversaw a series of prestige productions, including Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities.

In 1936 he had become an independent producer, his standout hits in the next four years being A Star Is Born, Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. Having made the biggest film of all time, Gone with the Wind, and introduced Hitchcock to the USA, Selznick took a break, but in 1944 he returned to producing and writing films – Since You Went Away, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, The Third Man.

He spent much of the rest of his life trying to top the success of Gone with the Wind, and furthering the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, who starred in his nearest pass, Duel in the Sun. In 1948 he took another break, this time for nine years, aware that TV was the new kid in town. His return to movie production was A Farewell to Arms in 1957. It was his last film. He died of a heart attack, his career having peaked with Hollywood.

Gone with the Wind (1939, dir: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)

Phew. Three directors. Everything about Gone with the Wind is excessive – books have been written just about the casting of it – but nothing quite outdoes Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. David O Selznick knew that he had to get Scarlett right or else the film would fail. And he got it right. In terms of plot GWTW is really just a straightforward journey with Scarlett as she hits one adversity after another and overcomes it – either romantic (her men), financial (her beloved Tara plantation) or political (the Civil War that throws both of the first two into flux).

The film is often discussed in terms of it being an epic love story set against a backdrop of the American Civil War, but Gone with the Wind is actually best seen as the portrait of an out and out bitch. And Leigh is quite punishingly majestic as the Southern belle whose beauty and birth leads her to believe she is entitled to everything. We’re in the Deep South of the slavery years and from the interactions between Scarlett and her house slave Mammie (Hattie McDaniel) it’s clear that in all of Scarlett’s dealings with men she expects the same as with Mammie – master or servant and nothing in between. Scarlett is the domineering sort who is after a new father figure. And if the man in question can’t deliver, she has no use for him.

Scarlett demands the bended knee and gets it from nearly everyone she encounters. She does not get it from Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and as a consequence falls badly for him from the moment she first spots him lounging languidly at a barbecue and undressing her with his eyes.

This is a film about domination and being dominated – black and white, north and south, man and woman. “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” That’s Rhett’s big bold bid to get Scarlett in his thrall (ie bed). And Scarlett, sensing a man who will dominate her, who would rather give it all up (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) than play second fiddle, yields. Look around at everyone else – feeble Southern gent Ashley (Leslie Howard), his fluttering wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald and everyone around them, second fiddlers all. As for the Yankee deserter who Scarlett meets on the road – she shoots him, partly because he’s the enemy, but also because he’s a coward, a weakling.

Gone with the Wind is also one of the great technical achievements of Hollywood. It’s a triumph of special effects, physical and otherwise. Watch it just to clock how many matte drawing and in-camera effects have been used, some of them so accomplished they’re still invisible (you can’t say that about the Lord of the Rings film, for instance, where every effect looks like one). Tara, O’Hara’s beloved home, is plywood and paper mache, though you’d never know. The burning of Atlanta scene saw Selznick himself pushing the plunger that detonated the buildings of the “back forty” and burning countless old sets used by Cecil B De Mille in the silent era. That’s how you mimic the burning of a city, by burning down something huge.

And it’s all caught in glorious Technicolor. The biggest film of its era, GWTW is still the biggest film of all time when inflation is taken into account. Bigger even than Avatar. There is a good reason for that.

Why Watch?

  • The biggest film of all time
  • Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
  • 10 Oscars
  • Released in 1939, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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