May 22, 2014
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Grade: 93/100

Director: Victor Fleming
Stars: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland

What it's about. The Margaret Mitchell mega-bestseller becomes a David O. Selznick and MGM production. Set in Georgia between 1861 and 1875 (or so). Selfish, headstrong, and beautiful Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is courted by all the local young men, but she only has eyes on modest and polite Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).

However, Ashley instead marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Melanie's gushing cousin Charles (Rand Brooks) catches Scarlett on the rebound, and they marry. The Civil War breaks out, and Leslie and Charles volunteer. Charles dies, making Scarlett a young widow. She and Melanie regularly encounter Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a cocky cad also capable of heroism. Rhett is infatuated with Scarlett but bides his time.

Scarlett and Melanie become close friends despite the former's jealousy of the latter. After the war, both Scarlett and Ashley are poor. Scarlett's sisters join her as field workers on the property of their former plantation, Tara. Carpetbaggers attempt to seize Tara, but Scarlett successfully schemes to marry successful businessman Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye). The Tara taxes are paid, and Ashley finds employment in Kennedy's store.

Kennedy is killed in a vigilante action. Rhett decides it is time to marry Scarlett, particularly now that she is wealthy. They have a spoiled daughter, Bonnie Blue (Cammie King Conlon). Nonetheless, their marriage fails, leaving Scarlett disconsolate yet defiant.

Supporting roles are filled by much of the cream of Hollywood, including Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett's batty father; future Superman George Reeves as one of Scarlett's would-be lovers; Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as black servants; Harry Davenport as the ever-burdened and elderly Dr. Meade; Jane Darwell as a Southern socialite; Isabel Jewell as the overseer's "white trash" mistress; Ward Bond, Yakima Canutt, and Cliff "Jiminy Cricket" Edwards as soldiers.

How others will see it. Gone with the Wind was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made. Selznick was nearly brought to a nervous collapse as he hired and fired directors and writers. The production is fascinatingly documented in The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind (1988), which, incredibly, is an even better film that its subject matter.

Ultimately, though, Selznick's obsessive efforts paid off. As measured by box office tickets sold, it has the greatest commercial success of any movie. It won ten Oscars, despite one of the most competitive years in Hollywood history (other Best Picture nominees included The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.) Leigh won Best Actress. Hattie McDaniel became the first black to win (or even be nominator for) an Oscar. Alas, Gable missed out on Best Actor, but he could take solace in his past win for It Happened One Night (1934).

The film's fame has survived the past 75 years. It was a charter member (1989) of the National Film Registry. At, it has a whopping 165K user votes. The user rating is extremely high, though a gender gap is persistent across age groups. Men give it an 8.1, women an 8.6. Those who dare to criticize it focus on the racial stereotypes of hopelessly immature Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and slow-witted Pork (Oscar Polk). The Yankees are also portrayed poorly during their infrequent appearance. Ultimately, slavery, Northern motives, and Southern gentry are misrepresented, in favor of the latter.

How I felt about it. It is ironic that a film that depicts blacks so poorly (especially Prissy and Pork) is also the first Hollywood film to give blacks important film roles. "Big Sam" (Everett Brown) risks his life to save Scarlett from robbery, rape, and murder. Prissy helps (if that is the right word) deliver Melanie's baby, and Mammy (McDaniel) is Scarlett's confidante and society adviser.

Despite all criticism, and the turmoil of its production, Gone with the Wind is obviously an outstanding film. Usually, films with huge budgets are disappointments, but this is one to savor. We wonder why Scarlett covets the milquetoast Ashley, why Melanie always thinks the best of Scarlett's scandalous behavior, and why the ever exasperating Rhett Butler keeps coming and going. He's a human yo-yo, or perhaps, proof of the cliché "Women: you can't live with them, and can't live without them."

What makes Gone with the Wind as great as it is? We like the antihero behavior of Scarlett and Rhett, especially the former's seduction of the hopelessly naïve Frank Kennedy. The depth of character, the casting, the costumes, and, especially, the script. According to Selznick, he wrote about 80% of it, with the balance contributed by ghostwriter Ben Hecht and sole-billed Sidney Howard. Howard never lived to see the movie, as he died in August 1939 in a tractor accident. He was the first person awarded an Oscar posthumously.