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.

THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Overlong but enticing tale of Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man

There is so much good stuff in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman that one wants to root for it all the way the way through. But at about the three-quarter mark of this three-and-a-half-hour movie, its confidence dribbles away, and it comes sadly close to resembling a shaggy-dog story.

The movie highlights Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a meat-packing delivery driver who eventually rubs shoulders with Philadelphia’s crime family, headed by Russell Bufalino. (As amazing as DeNiro is age 75, he is matched in grace and subtlety by Joe Pesci, who delivers his best-ever movie performance as Bufalino.)

After Sheeran dutifully does Bufalino’s bidding on several assignments, he is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the mercurial head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Hoffa constantly refers to the Teamsters as “my union” and gets very nasty when any of his peers tries to convince him otherwise. Hoffa needs someone to make him seem less threatening in public, and he hires Sheeran to be that someone.

Anyone who saw the 1992 Jack Nicholson saga Hoffa — not to mention most of Martin Scorsese’s filmography — won’t be surprised at this movie’s familiar themes (e.g., hotheads with big guns and bigger senses of entitlement). But for a change, Scorsese explores those themes (and their ramifications) in a fairly low-key manner.

Sheeran is a good guy at heart, but his in-your-face method of problem resolution ends up alienating his family over the years. And whereas Hoffa’s bombastic style seemed unique in his time, it now seems to have served as a template for modern politics.

All of this is fascinating, up to a point. Unfortunately, the movie’s resolution of the Hoffa subplot is laboriously drawn-out, and the movie seems to go on forever from there. At length and in style, the movie is obviously aiming for Godfather-like greatness, but its story doesn’t have nearly as much depth or power.

Savor The Irishman‘s many good points, but beware its many changes in tone.

THE D.I. (1957) – Jack Webb at his square-jawest

The following is my entry in the Send in the Marines Blogathon, co-hosted by J-Dub and Gill at, respectively, the blogs Dubsism and Realweegiemidget Reviews. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of movies related to the subject of the U.S. Marine Corps!

It’s 1971, with the Vietnam War still in full force. An impressionable 10-year-old kid, concerned that he might have to face the draft in the future, is watching TV with his older brother, who recently had been honorably discharged from the war after four years of service. Their bill of fare this Sunday afternoon is Jack Webb’s The D.I., and as Webb’s D.I. character barks orders and hurls invective at his wet-behind-the-ears troops, the veteran is all too happy to tell his kid brother, “Oh, yeah, that’s just what military life was like.”

In short, The D.I. scared the s**t out of me.

Since then, of course, we’ve seen Full Metal Jacket and other movies that have been far more explicit about the harshness of military life. (In fact, unlike those other movies, The D.I. [made in a peacetime era] doesn’t even go beyond boot camp.) But thanks to Webb’s spartan direction, the movie still packs quite a wallop.

The movie centers on Gunnery Sergeant Jim Moore (Webb), a Parris Island officer who is tough as nails, but (naturally) only because he has to be. The main thorn in Moore’s side is Pvt. Owens (Don Dubbins), a milquetoast recruit who seems to go out of his way to do everything wrong. Owens proves to be such a pain that Moore’s superior gives him an ultimatum — make Owens tow the line in three days, or he will be dishonorably discharged.

If you’ve seen Webb do his square, clipped version of virtue on “Dragnet” (always ending a scene with some pearl of wisdom about modern life), his D.I. characterization won’t be any great surprise. At one point, Moore tells one of his peers, “When I get a punk [in my squadron], I get rid of him. When I get a guy like this Owens, I cultivate him!” (Cue commercial.)

However, for this kind of story, Webb’s straight-on directorial style works perfectly. The camera is always just close enough in that we feel the claustrophia of these put-upon soldiers. And Webb never wastes any shot with fancy technique, always making his point and then moving right on to the next scene. (There’s a surprisingly touching back-and-forth moment where Owens is planning to desert the company and one of Owens’ peers tearfully tries to talk him out of it.)

There are only a couple of instances where the movie manufactures some hollow drama just because it can’t think of anything else to do. One is where Moore’s potential love interest Annie (Jackie Loughery) gets all worked up over nothing just so that the movie can give them an argument about a conflict that isn’t there. And there’s some business regarding a dead flea that starts to make you worry that Moore has finally gone over the edge. Fortunately, these dizzy spells don’t last long, and the movie overall is quite satisfying.

During one of his lectures to Owens, Moore gets all Yoda on him and says, “We don’t try here in the Marines. We either do or we don’t!” The D.I. shows that the Marines, and Webb, get the job done pretty well.

Here’s a trailer with Webb taking you on a “tour” of the movie.

BODY HEAT (1981) – They’re hot-blooded, check them and see

The following is my entry in The Hotter’nell Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from June 21-23, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of summer- and heat-wave-related movies!

Having seen a lot of movies and having read a bit of Raymond Chandler, I found Body Heat downright laughable when it was first released. Seeing it again after nearly 40 years, I liked it a little better. There’s nothing wrong with the movie that a lesser case of pretension wouldn’t cure.

The movie takes place in the heat of Florida where one night, Ned Racine (William Hurt), a well-meaning but careless lawyer, happens upon luscious Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) after the two exit from a sweltering outdoor concert. Ned tries to flirt and make snappy patter with Matty, who twice warns Ned that she’s married. Frankly, Ned is so horny, he doesn’t care — which tips us off that he’s as sloppy at love as he is at legal counsel.

Eventually, Matty allows Ned to visit her home (her husband is currently out of town), but to Ned’s chagrin, she gives him only a chaste kiss before locking him out of the house. Now, here comes the scene that provides the movie’s acid test as to whether or not you’ll buy into its noirish stylization. (Spoiler paragraph alert follows.)

Ned is about to drive away from the house, but curiosity gets the better of him. He returns to Matty’s front door, looks through its window, and see Maddie standing frozen, staring back at Ned. Ned tries to find another entranceway but cannot, always seeing Matty teasingly staring at him. Finally at his boiling point, Ned picks up a nearby chair, smashes in the front door, and rushes into Matty’s waiting arms.

This is meant to be a noir-like point, showing us that Ned is so overcome with lust that he’ll do anything to get what he wants. All I could think while watching this was, either somebody would want me or she wouldn’t — I sure wouldn’t waste a good front door to find out the answer.

Anyway, we are meant to see that Ned and Matty have sex in every possible position before we get to the main plot point. Matty tells Ned how unhappy she is with her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna), and how she cannot divorce him because everything is tipped in her husband’s favor (he made Matty sign a prenuptial agreement). After a few minutes of this brazen exposition, Ned nonchalantly informs Matty that they’re going to have to kill Edmund. Again, this is film noir, where we’re supposed to believe that Ned is so frenzied with lust that he’ll do things a rational man would not do. I wasn’t convinced that Ned’s outrageous idea was anything but a machination of the screenwriter (Lawrence Kasdan, whose directorial debut this was after co-writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Upon its first release, film critic Pauline Kael wrote a scathing review of the movie, stating, “Kasdan has modern characters talking jive talk as if they’d been boning up on Chandler novels, and he doesn’t seem to know if he wants laughs or not.” A more generous reading of the movie is that it’s okay as an average murder mystery, but its attempts at stylized noir stick out like sore thumbs. As Kael pointed out, film noir was partially a reaction to Hollywood’s strict censorship code of the 1940’s and ’50s, meaning that filmmakers had to find unique ways of depicting sex and murder. Smashing doors in and talking jive doesn’t make much sense in a movie where four-letter words are uttered regularly and nearly all of Kathleen Turner’s physique can be put upon display.

Hurt and Turner do well enough under the circumstances, but it’s really the supporting players that stand out. Matty’s husband Edmund is supposed to come off as a self-absorbed fatcat, but Richard Crenna makes him fairly likable, probably more so than Kasdan intended. (Having appeared in an awful TV remake of Double Indemnity in 1973, Crenna should have known to steer clear of ersatz noir to start with.) As, respectively, a fellow lawyer and a local investigator, Ted Danson (in a pre-“Cheers” role) and J.A. Preston are as smooth as silk; the movie might have been more fun if the story had been told strictly from their points of view. And last but hardly least, Mickey Rourke steals the movie as an arsonist who reluctantly helps Ned with his murder plan.

The movie is watchable but hardly in the league with the film noir classics that it’s trying to emulate. By the time the movie is about halfway done, you wish someone would take Ned aside and give him back-to-back screenings of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice in order to show Ned how poorly this kind of scheme could work out for him.