Prodigiously produced (and perhaps partially directed) by David O. Selznick, in many ways Gone with the Wind is quintessential Hollywood product. It brandishes an industry’s penchant for spectacular escapist entertainment, soap opera and melodrama, star-studded casting and directorial impersonality. How could the picture have any artistic signature when so many different scenarists and directors contributed this scene or that? Gone with the Wind is the lie that is Hollywood, after all; it declares Sidney Howard the sole scenarist and Victor Fleming the sole director, and even accords them both Oscars (Howard, posthumously). This is a film made by committee, chaired and dictated to by the producer, whose “personal vision” is tried-and-true formula. It bears the same relationship to genuine art as a paint-by-numbers does to a Rembrandt or a Kandinsky. It is much the same in Hollywood today, except that bankers, who know even less about moviemaking than producers do, now chair the committees.
The enormous profitability of this film—once adjustments are made for the change in ticket prices, it remains the most financially successful film of all time—was unavoidable. The recent novel on which it was based was also a stupendous “hit”—this, despite the fact that the book is unreadable it is so badly written, and a fluke: Margaret Mitchell never published anything else. Added to this was Selznick’s genius for publicity, such as the artificial excitement he generated in the press by his nationwide “search” for the “perfect” Scarlett O’Hara, the lead role.
The crudely involving story centers on a plantation owner’s beautiful daughter in the Civil War (and after) South—beautiful, not by Mitchell’s self-projective design (in the book Scarlett is plain), but because beautiful young Vivien Leigh plays her. This schemer embodies the South’s indefatigable spirit; Scarlett marries and is widowed a lot, all the while pining for Ashley Wilkes, her cousin Melanie’s husband, who embodies the South’s honor code and subsequent defeatism (which Scarlett’s spunk counters and contests), and the passing of Ashleyism into the oblivion of history—all set against the spectacle of war. (The scenes of carnage in a makeshift hospital were meant to discourage U.S. participation in the currently impending and then actual European war.) Its symbols and stereotypes jangling like glass jars of jams and preserves, the film doesn’t attempt to do what François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961) and Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963), among others, brilliantly do: show the interactivity between individuals and the place and time in which they move. Gone with the Wind is inflated soap opera with the Civil War—or the War Between the States, as it was called in the South—as mere backdrop.
Nearly four hours long, it is long indeed, and in truth the first half is roomy enough and sufficiently stylish to hold one’s interest, but the second half is deadly (except for the famous closing minutes), nothing but plot and more plot and more plot on top of that. It is during this second half that we learn that the Ku Klux Klan, that organization of fine Southern gentlemen, was formed to protect white women from vicious whites. Selznick might have let a little truth in, but he pandered to the South in order to maximize his film’s profitability.
Elsewhere I ask this about the film and about another that adopts its style and method (Steven Spielberg’s 1985 The Color Purple):
Why would an artist not want to provide context that might make his or her images shimmer with greater feeling and achieve deeper meaning? When any is offered, the specious response is always the same: the audience knows that; they bring that to the film. (Variation on the same argument: The audience can get that from the book—as though a film based on a book were an extension of the book.) But it’s wrong of filmmakers to pass on to an audience responsibility for their own work. Moreover, in the past, divesting material of some social, political, psychological or historical context has been mere cover for the most odious kind of calculation. In the movie (as in the book) Gone with the Wind, for example, freed slaves plead to stay on at Southern plantations. Did any such thing ever happen? Certainly. But absent the context of the dependency of slaves on their owners that the slave system itself fostered, the film event conveys a false and sentimental meaning; and surely its heart-tugging effect was calculated with an eye on Southern box-office.
Gone with the Wind isn’t visually expressive; rather, it is visually dull, although punctuated with grandiose visual gestures (such as the shot where the camera rises to reveal the Confederate flag flying over an outdoor expanse of wounded, dying and already-dead Confederate soldiers). However, the film is superbly acted, at least by Leigh, Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, and Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett’s father, whose love of land his daughter inherits—not a genuine theme that unifies the film, but merely an intermittent thread of continuity so those who actually think that the film is about something can persist in their delusion and self-deception.
Of historic importance is the fact that Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, became the first African American to win an acting Oscar. However, she is shrewder and better, in her unforgettably lopsided maid’s cap, in Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935). In that film McDaniel is not Negro; she is black. She would also be exceptionally fine in John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942).
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