GONE WITH THE WIND – The Case Against

The following is my contribution to The Leap Year Blogathon, hosted by Rebecca at the blog Taking Up Room on Feb. 29, 2020. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ entries that discuss movies or TV shows which meet the following criteria (as per Rebecca’s blogathon rules):

  • Starring celebrities born on February 29. Bio-type posts work, too.
  • Connecting to Leap Day in some way.
  • Playing with time, e.g., Interstellar, Outer Limits, Back To the Future, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanetc.
  • Any movie or TV show you’ve always wanted to review but never had the chance to. It’s your February 29th, after all. 🙂

(Naturally, I took the easy way out and took advantage of the fourth criterion!)

I’ve been a film buff all my life, but I put off watching Gone with the Wind for several years because it seemed too much like homework to me. I finally saw it one night with a blind date, when I was 24 years old. Since then, I’ve watched it only one other time (last night, when it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies).

Usually, I don’t bother listing my personal “history” with a movie, as I did above. But I GWTW seems to invite that kind of history, seeing as it’s a sprawling piece of (fictional) Civil War history itself.

Another reason I put off seeing this movie for so long was that, even before viewing it, I knew that certain elements of it were going to bother me. Let me address those elements first.

1) I didn’t come from the South; I live there now, but I did not move to Florida until I was 17. Therefore, I do not have instilled within me the romantic notion of the Old South (any more than I have any romantic notion of any region where I’ve lived). To this day, I don’t understand that viewpoint.

2) Critics and moviegoers have been raving about the inarguable perfection and quality of this movie for eight decades. I often wonder just what percentage of GWTW fandom is occupied by African-Americans. In other words, if we could turn back time, would blacks be as eager to return to this (for them) subservient setting as whites are?

3) And of course, this calls to attention the elephant in the room: The movie’s political incorrectness. GWTW buffs will surely scoff at my sensitivity and tell me that we must view this movie in light of both the era it depicts and the era in which it was made. I’m afraid that GWTW has too many prickly elements for me to view it through the rose-colored glasses of 1939. If you want to look at the film that way, that’s your prerogative, but I prefer to critique it in contemporary terms. Sorry if that’s off-putting.

**

The movie’s primary focus is a Southern plantation named Tara, and even more squarely on one of its snooty residents: An entitled young woman named Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). It is established early on that Scarlett is the most popular of the three O’Hara sisters and could have any man she chooses. But, simply because a local favorite named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard, looking too anemic for my tastes) is already spoken for, he’s the one upon whom Scarlett concentrates her laser focus.

And not only are we meant to accept this at face value, the movie presents Scarlett’s cat-and-mouse game with Ashley as the plot point that deserves the most attention. Ostensibly, this sprawling epic is about the Civil War and the dramatic ways in which it changed the South. Yet, even by the end of this four-hour epic, the movie is still smacking its lips in anticipation of Ashley and Scarlett getting together.

But about 25 minutes in, the movie introduces the major element that will keep that from happening: roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instantly sees through Scarlett’s fiddle-dee-dee persona, makes a point of sticking pins in it every chance he gets, and yet still finds her fetching in her own way. For a long time, Scarlett poo-poos Rhett’s lack of pretentiousness, but eventually she succumbs to him.

As do most moviegoers. I don’t know if it’s true, but I read somewhere that when she was asked, Margaret Mitchell (author of the original GWTW novel) said that her favorite choice to play Rhett Butler would have been Groucho Marx. That’s not as outrageous as it first sounds; imagine Scarlett O’Hara as a slimmer Margaret Dumont, and it’s easy to imagine Groucho pricking Scarlett’s false Southern front. For me, Gable is one of the few actors in the movie to hold my attention. If he hadn’t popped in every so often to burst Scarlett’s bubble, I don’t know if I could have made it through the movie’s four hours.

The only other actor about whom I can say that is Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett’s cousin and Ashley Wilkes’ inevitable bride. At first glance, Melanie seems one of those insufferably cheery people who could find optimism even in a plague. But somehow, De Havilland plays her so sincerely that you end being charmed by her. You could say that Melanie and Scarlett are two sides of the same coin — both of them being well-liked, except that Melanie is appreciated for her positive view of life, whereas Scarlett is appreciated by the men who “enjoy the chase” and talked about behind her back by most of the womenfolk. (Check out Suellen [Evelyn Keyes], one of Scarlett’s sisters; to hear her tell it, most of her life’s miseries have been brought about by Scarlett.)

For the most part, Gone with the Wind‘s legend as a sprawling story is justified. The set pieces that everyone has always talked about — the big dance where Rhett and Scarlett first get together, the burning of Atlanta — are as rousing as they ever were. But then the movie has to keep coming back to its ostensible main plotline with Rhett and Scarlett. In fact, one wonders why, as with Scarlett’s advances to Ashley to no avail, Rhett keeps coming back to this woman who views the Civil War — shown to great effect in a sprawling shot that keeps amassing dead soldiers as it moves along — in terms of how it affects her. For all of the movie’s interest in Southern chivalry, Rhett and Scarlett’s back-and-forth reminds me of a film noir of some years later, Gilda (1946), in which Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth masochistically keep each other at arm’s length so that they can enjoy the torture it provides.

By the time the movie descends into all-out melodrama in its final hour, one wonders how many moviegoers (to quote you-know-who) will give a damn. I realize that I am in cinematic Siberia as one of the few people who did not get swept away by Gone with the Wind. Nevertheless, for people like me, the movie could easily have been cut into two halves: The first half consisting of the movie’s genuinely moving moments of storytelling, its second half being home movies of Rhett and Scarlett going at it like a couple of birds in a cockfight.

7 thoughts on “GONE WITH THE WIND – The Case Against

  1. I have never really subscribed to the “it reflects its era” argument in regards to any film (As I deal mainly in exploitation films, it comes up a lot). Explanation it may be. All purpose excuse? Not so much.

    I will happily join you at the controversial table of not adoring “Gone With The Wind”. While the production values and set pieces are lush, the film asks you to spend too much time with characters who lack self awareness to a maddening degree. Just like in real life, they suck the air out of the lavishly appointed room.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t consider myself a major fan of Gone with the Wind, but I have found an appreciation for it in the last few years. It starts with Max Steiner’s score and then to the themes of the impact of war and survival. It was a civilization based on evil and deserved to be gone, but I find the individual stories of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The issue with the romance–who would want Ashley?–got me when I watched it as a kid. (Who ignores Clark Gable’s Rhett for THAT guy?) I admire a lot about the production, and do think the lack of self-awareness of the main character was fascinating, and well developed. That said, I think there’s a big difference between those films that have moments of blindness due to the era in which they were made, and ones that are actively trying to argue something deeply offensive and wrong, like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Every time I see GWTW, I respect the movie – and those who made it – more and more. The movie is first class in almost every area, and holds my interest even after 4-5 re-watches over the last 35 years. Pretty good for a 80 y/o “chick movie”. The only blemish is Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Oh if only Randolph Scott had been cast in that role. But I’ll admit when its after the war, and Ashley turns into a wimp, then Howard is a much better fit. But before that, its impossible to imagine why Scarlett would be so obsessively in love with him. Of course, I’m a guy, and may be immune to Howard’s massive sex appeal. Finally, having read the novel – which is pretty mediocre – the screenwriters deserve a round of applause for such a great adaption.

    Like

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