September 2, 2014

Gone with the Wind

For the last week or so I've been flustered by the task of writing about Gone with the Wind. Because what can I possibly say about the film that hasn’t already been said? It's simply one of the finest achievements in cinematic history. Most people go to the movies with the intent of being immersed in a story—they wish to be exhilarated, to be whisked on an adventure that is as dramatic as it is thrilling. Gone with the Wind has all of that. Part Civil War epic and part romantic melodrama, there is an ample supply of excitement to be had—even from the opening sequence, in which we see the film's title swinging across the screen against a lush backdrop and a roaring theme song, you're alerted from the get-go that this is no ordinary picture.

Firstly, you've got one of the most iconic heroines of all time—who is herself a complicated yet enthralling mix of hateful and hypnotic—and a slew of other memorable characters adding color and life to an already greatly vivid film. A four-hour running time, especially when roughly 50% of the film is a verbose soap opera, runs the risk of dragging on and exhausting the viewer, but I can sit through Gone with the Wind and never be bored. This is mainly because the sheer bravura of it all is a spectacle to be respected in and of itself. Everything about Gone with the Wind commands your attention, from the sets to the movie star beauty to the lavish costumes...But what's particularly amazing about Gone with the Wind is how technically and visually advanced it is over any other film made at the time. Those lush, deep shots and those hand-painted skies have the power to inspire awe over 70 years later. Scenes such as the Burning of Atlanta or that legendary shot of hundreds of dead soldiers are not only astounding in scope, but they're also telling of a different era in which exhaustive efforts were put forth to achieve cinematic glory (as opposed to the modern day practice of CGI manipulation). Simply put, Gone with the Wind is a monster. A gigantic, racist, opulent, fabulous, majestic monster. Watching it is like watching a dream unfold. It's a pure, cinematic experience. It's the grandmother of all sweeping romantic epics. And there will likely never be another picture which matches Gone with the Wind's chutzpah ever again. 


  1. You are quite right when you say that fifty percent of this film is verbose soap opera: the first half of the film is about pre/Civil War, Civil War and post/Civil War storylines. Once they're out of the picture, you get a 1930s melodrama in 18th century costumes. In fact, the second half of the film bogs down in pedestrian cinematics and rushed storylines. GWTW was condensed for filming purposes but it sometimes seems like too much story was condensed into too little screen time. That said, the production values still impress and this film is suffused with actors at the very zenith of their craft. Leigh is a wonderful, if somewhat theatrical, Scarlett and there was no one at that time who could have reigned in and focused that outrageous character's complexities the way she did. It's a performance at once both overrated and underestimated. Gable, though still Gable, was never more clearheaded and purposeful in his dramatic poise as he was here. Hattie McDaniel played a slave/maid, yes, but she is probably the most intuitive and knowing of all GWTW characters and both she and the filmmakers let that show in a way that remains timeless and of its time. She earned that Oscar (and in 1939, no less). Olivia deHavilland gives what is perhaps the most subtly persuasive performance of them all. Melanie is often likened to a silly sap, but deHavilland is earnest, forthright, insightful and kind without ever sacrificing Melanie's inner strength and drive or, most profoundly, her loyalty. It's a multilayered performance that could easily have been considered a leading role (she has about 80 percent more screen time than Greer Garson's lead nomination for 1939's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips).

    The racial stereotypes still grate (including Butterfly McQueen, who is nonetheless immortal in her role) and the musical scoring unfortunately tends to emphasize the overripe aspects of the storyline. Still, while GWTW may not actually be one of the all time greatest films (it really wasn't back in '39 either), it's easily one of the most memorable and represents a time in film history when a group of dedicated artists reached beyond the bounds of their capacities.

  2. Having seen Hattie McDaniel's performance again in GWTW last year as well as read a disparagement of her in a recent article I must say two things. First, she is totally committed to the role and mines layers that resonate consistently. Second, she plays the sharpest, most intuitive, most honest and at times the most ruthlessly practical character in the film. If she doesn't drive the action, she makes it resonate.

    McDaniel received work but no roles that offered such an opportunity again, yet her work in GWTW elevates what could have been a complete stereotype to a human being with resonance. It's quintessially excellent character acting that not only supports a film but elevates it.

    The fact that the Academy recognized this 77 years ago despite the prejudices yet to be tackled, even in their own industry, is laudable. Hattie earned and received her Oscar for an immortal performance that makes the current 'Oscar Boycott' both timely and yet somewhat irrelevant. Don't sweat the Academy: get people like Hattie working, recognized and offered roles that will allow them to display their talent. Simple.