Oct. 12, 2010

The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind (1988)
Grade: 96/100

Director: David Hinton
Stars: Christopher Plummer, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable

What it's about. A top-notch documentary on the making of Gone with the Wind (1939), the most financially successful "classic" movie of all time. We get the goods straight from the estate of the film's producer, David O. Selznick. The documentary itself is made with the co-operation of Selznick's two sons.

The documentary was timed to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the movie, which at the time was owned by Ted Turner's cable television empire. Since Turner Entertainment was one of the production companies, the documentary had access to clips from the film itself. More importantly, we get snippets of screen tests from some of the 32 actresses that tried out for the key role of Scarlett O'Hara, including some that hardly seemed right for the role, such as Jean Arthur. We see several screen tests for the actress that nearly landed the career-defining role, Paulette Goddard.

Alas for Goddard, Vivien Leigh in a Scarlett-like devious plan signed with Selznick's agent brother Myron, who introduced Leigh to David. Leigh promptly tested for the role with the film's then-director, George Cukor, and was signed to the picture just five days later despite having no trace of a Southern accent (you'd think Vivien would have seen Jezebel).

There are also interviews with several survivors of the film's cast, crew, and studio staff. These reveal fascinating and humorous tidbits of trivia. One production member went to Atlanta to cast minor roles, and claims to have met "every Miss Atlanta for twenty years back."

The first scene filmed was the burning of Atlanta. At that time, just seven technicolor cameras existed, and all were bought or borrowed to film the big blaze, spread across sets from prior RKO and Selznick movies.

Besides the memories of those partly responsible for the film, the documentary has use of David O. Selznick's myriad memos to his staff, which fuss and complain over every imaginable wrinkle of the gargantuan movie's production. Although not the longest movie ever made, Gone with the Wind is the longest movie that most of us have ever seen. At 238 minutes, it is two lengthy (for 1939) movies separated by an intermission. It closely follows its source novel, a runaway bestseller from previously unknown author Margaret Mitchell.

One clever aspect of the movie is its liberal use of snippets from black and white movies of the 1930s that feature the principals of Gone with the Wind. Lines from these now-obscure movies are inserted, at the right time, to correspond with the flow of the documentary.

The most entertaining among these has Vivien Leigh, then conniving to get the part of Scarlett by sending photos of herself in period costume to Selznick, speaking to a long-distance telephone operator. "No reply? There must be! Please ring again!" Once can appreciate the time it took for someone to track down and watch all these old 1930s films to procure these nuggets for the documentary.

The most interesting revelation is that the most important person behind the success of the film wasn't its three directors (first George Cukor, then Victor Fleming, then Sam Wood, then Fleming again), or principal screenwriter Sidney Howard, whose script was massaged by every writer Selznick could locate, or Vivien Leigh's inspired, catty performance. The person critical to the success wasn't even Selznick, who drove himself to drug addiction during the three-year production.

No, the success of the film was due to its production designer, William Cameron Menzies, whose colorful storyboard depicted all the camera shots necessary to the making of the movie. The storyboard formed the backbone of the movie, later fleshed out by the script, sets, cinematography, and acting.

How others will see it. This made-for-television documentary garners few votes but huge user ratings at imdb.com. Men give it an average of 9.0, women an average of 9.4. Once broken down by demographics, the only ratings of less than 8.3 come from viewers under 18, and even those are fairly high. In fact, the user ratings are higher than those for the film it celebrates, Gone with the Wind, which receives only an 8.2 out of a possible 10. Thus, the documentary is even better than the film itself, and certainly was much less trouble to make!

One disappointment is that third lead Olivia de Havilland, alive in 1988 as she still is at the time of writing (2010), would not participate in the documentary. She must not be as nice as her character in the film, who is as saintly as they come.