Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Borte med Blæsten
There are many notable watersheds in film history. The advent of sound for example. But one of the major ones got to be “Gone with the Wind”. This movie redefined what a big Hollywood production is and can do and simply set a new standard. If you wanted to impress, this was the one to top. On every parameter “Gone with the Wind” was bigger than anything seen before, even on running time it would make von Stroheim and Gance blush in embarrassment.

It was also the most expensive movie ever, the most ambitious cinematography, most important adaption, most directors worn out, most Oscars and if the rumor is right the most spectacular infight among the divas of Hollywood to become Scarlett O’Hara.

To use a cliché, if you have not heard of “Gone with the Wind” you have been living under a rock.

Yet I had never seen it before.

Not for lacking any opportunity. It is to this day frequently on television and the stable of any half-decent video collection. It has just never been my thing. Like musicals or gangster movies I have always skirted family dramas. Now I got the chance and… it is still not my thing. Oh, it is a very impressive movie! And it is gripping enough to keep you there for the 4 hours it takes to get through it. I am just not really into the subject.

“Gone with the Wind” is made of the same fabric as romantic pulp literature and could easily have become intolerably sweet. Already it performs a sort of historical white-washing of the Old South, but it could have been even worse if it had not been for the complexity of the characters, most notably Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

Scarlett is the classical spoiled, egocentric and manipulative Southern Belle and in a pulp version she would have grown up to become a loving and caring mother/wife/heroine. Instead she develops strength to become a powerful spoiled, egocentric and manipulative Southern Belle. We are always let to believe that her association with Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Rhett or crisis of war is reforming her and opening her mind to other people’s needs and wishes. Instead time and again we see the egocentric monster reappearing. She wants what she cannot have and she will get it no matter how many dead bodies or broken hearts she has to walk over. In the end she cares for no-one but herself.

Rhett is not just an appendage to Scarlett. While we never really find out where he is coming from he is the person that she can never manipulate. He is smitten by her but not blinded like everybody else. He sees the strength in her, her spirit and loves her for it, yet he refuse to fall into her net. And because she cannot manipulate him she hates him and is yet attracted to him. In the end it is her egoism that keeps them apart for long and ruins it for them in the end. The main difference between the two is that Rhett knows his own weaknesses. He rests in himself, yes, but he also tries to do the right thing when the cause is good. Scarlett on the other hand is blind to her own weaknesses to the point of idiocy and “right or wrong” comes second to her own needs.

Like Julie in “Jezebel” Scarlett insists on getting the one man she cannot have. She cannot get it into her head that maybe he does not want her. In fact Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is deeply devoted to his angel of a wife, Melanie, and is not hiding it. The only thing that keeps him from slapping Scarlett whenever she insinuates herself on him is his own decency. He is a good man, a perfect man for Melanie, and I feel truly sorry for him to be the target of Scarlett’s infatuation. Throughout the story Scarlett is psychopathically driven to do horrible things, mainly to keep some grip of Ashley. Her first husband she marries in a failed attempt at making him envious (as if he cared). Her caring for Melanie is no generosity toward Melanie, but aimed at Ashley and she plays on Melanie’s goodness to keep him in town when he wants to go to New York.

Even when she does marry Rhett and seem to have found mutual happiness it is always her infatuation with Ashley that tears them apart. She just cannot let it go.

In a movie with plenty of heartbreak for me the strongest scenes are those with Scarlett’s and Rhett’s daughter Bonnie. She is a darling and Rhett loves her dearly. In a time where Scarlett (again) cannot forget Ashley it is Bonnie that keeps them together. Rhett will suffer for the sake of his daughter, while Scarlett’s complaint is that Bonnie loves her father more than her mother. Rhett is just being a good father. When the situation becomes intolerable Rhett leaves for London with Bonnie, but the girl need both her parents and for her sake he returns. When Bonnie tragically dies (horrible scene!) there is no glue left. Rhett correctly gauge the situation and leaves, fed up with Scarlett. He was never a victim of her manipulations, but he used to love her and she squandered it away. Now he just does not care. His parting words: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, has become iconic.

Scarlett and Julie in “Jezebel” are very similar characters and they are very difficult for me to root for, yet they seem to be prevalent in this sort of stories.  These are stories of idle nobility where the women have been rendered useless by wealth and lack of professional ambition with social activity their sole occupation. Their impractical dresses are a giveaway. They are useless. Any ambition they may have must be turned in a social direction creating saints (Melanie) or monsters (Scarlett). Fortunately we have come a long way since then.

The cinematography of “Gone with the Wind” is stunning. Filmed in beautiful Technicolor it has none of the garish colors of “Robin Hood” or “The Wizard of Oz”, but uses tones in perfect alignment with the context. The fire of Atlanta is so exceptional because of the intelligent use of color. It just would not have been half as effective in black and white.

It was an overwhelming experience to see this movie and with “Gone with the Wind” it does not feel like I am in the thirties anymore, but in a much later age. It would be many years before the rest of Hollywood caught up.   


  1. Blah blah blah this is one of the most significant movies of all time, but man do I ever hate this one. It's Scarlett. I am in no way ever - EVER - rooting for her. She is so damn annoying. I hate her, and not in a good way. And man, if you hate - really, really, really HATE - Scarlett O'Hara, this turns into an incredibly tedious and rather tortuous film.

    1. Ha ha, I can definitely see that. But then it feels extra good when Rhett gives her what is coming to her. And for someone to not CARE about her, that is, reducing her to insignificance, must be the ultimate slap in her face.
      A four hour portrayal of an annoying character, that really have to be well made to work.

  2. The comparison with Jezebel is a good one. Of course, in Jezebel, the comeuppance is faster, harsher, and more complete.

    A lot of women like Scarlett because she's the ultimate of that character type. She's spoiled and bitchy, but does it with a certain class. It's sort of why many men like Rhett Butler--he's a jerk, but does it with style.

    1. Well, the I am almost embarrased to make the comparison with Jezebel, it is so obvious. My point is that this is a very common character type and I wonder why. I mean everybody agree that they are deeply annoying, yet there is clearly a facination here. I am not sure of the comparison with Rhett Butler. I root for him. The more I see him, the more I like him because we get to see that beneath that swashbuckling pirate there is an honorable man.
      Maybe that facination is more like the facination with gangsters. Thoroughly bad guys, yet we cannot get enough movies about them.

  3. Very good review. The comparison to Jezebel is apt since it was an attempt to preempt the Gone with the Wind story. (There were a few years between the book being published and the movie being made.)

    I have to say I didn't care for this movie very much and that is completely due to one reason - I thoroughly disliked Scarlett O'Hara. I saw this years ago and I have never had the slightest urge to watch it again.

    1. I think we have consensus on not liking Scarlett. And I can only agree. I just think that if it had been a classic development story where she realizes her wrongs and develop into a likable character "Gone with the Wind" would have been so sugar sweet that it would have been unbearable. Now instead we are eagerly awaiting the moment where that bitch will get what is coming her way.

  4. I found the male comments above quite humorous.

    Scarlett O'Hara is not only one of the greatest female film characters ever but also in literature. I expect most men have not read Margaret Mitchell's novel. You thought watching a 4 hr. movie was long--try reading the book!

    As an American of a certain age it baffles me how anyone could escape into adulthood without ever seeing this. In the States, GWTW started being shown on TV once a year (over the course of two days) starting in 1976. Just like The Wizard of Oz, we watched GWTW every year as a family.

    I show the scenes depicting the burning of Atlanta when I teach the Civil War. The kids eat it, even if it's an "old" movie.

    1. I frankly admits my ignorance. This is why I do this project. When I never before saw this film I know something is wrong.
      My wife likes Scarlett, I do not, so yeah, probably a gender thing.