Film: Gone with the Wind
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.
Let’s talk movie event, shall we? While there were certainly great movies before Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, there had never really been a film that anyone could call “must see” other than people like me who follow lists made by other people. Other films had spectacle, great casts, epic length, sweeping stories, but until Gone with the Wind, no one put them all in one big shiny package. This film has it all plus a bag of chips, the chips being the fact that it’s in color.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name, the story covers the years immediately prior to the American Civil War, the years during, and the dark years that follow. We concern ourselves mostly with Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), a headstrong woman who has never been denied a thing she wanted in her entire life, with one exception. Scarlett wants anything that is possessed by someone else. She wants all of the attention, all of the men, and everything else as well. But what she really wants is Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Sadly for her, Ashley is engaged to her cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).
What follows, then is one of the great unrequited love stories ever put to film. Scarlett does everything but hump Ashley’s leg every time she sees him, and while Melanie appears to notice this, she doesn’t do anything to discourage it. Melanie, it turns out, is one of those genuinely nice and decent people who look for the best in everybody.
Scarlett marries and is immediately widowed by the war, leaving her free to continue pursuing Ashley. At the same time, she is pursued by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a wealthy ne’er-do-well, smuggler, and otherwise shady individual. Scarlett first dislikes and then comes to appreciate the attention of Mr. Butler, mostly because of the “wealthy” part. War eventually comes to the South, Sherman marches to the sea, and Atlanta is burned in Technicolor. And during all of this, Scarlett’s home plantation, Tara, is virtually destroyed, her mother (Barbara O’Neill) dies, and her father (the always great Thomas Mitchell) loses his mind. These are the tough years, during which Scarlett must learn to work the farm herself and not depend on her servants. And just before the intermission, she famously declares that she’ll never go hungry again.
Things are looking up financially in the second half of the film. Scarlett marries again, this time stealing the fiancée of her own sister to get the money to pay the new taxes on Tara. She continues to expand her husband’s new business, operating a sawmill with her beloved Ashley, until her husband is killed while enacting some Klan-style retribution. Widowed again, she is successfully wooed (again, mostly thanks to the money) by Rhett Butler, setting of the stormiest relationship to that point in film history. This involves the birth of a child, the death of the child in a horse riding accident (just like Barry Lyndon. Authors note: keep young children away from horses), a miscarriage, fights, reconciliation, public embarrassment, attempted reconciliation, and, eventually, Clark Gable saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
So let’s talk about a few of the specifics here. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk at least a little about Hattie McDaniel, who plays the house slave/servant Mammy. McDaniel is both the first African-American nominated for an Oscar and the first to win one, which is quite an achievement. She also earned it. Mammy is one of the more memorable characters from this film. She’s simultaneously protective of the women in her house as concerns outsiders and a harridan around those people for whom she believes a little moral ass-whipping is needed—Scarlett more often than not. While the role itself didn’t do much to advance minority rights or better minority roles in Hollywood, McDaniel made the role hers and sold it so completely that the character has become as legendary as Scarlett and Rhett.
As for the other main players, I may differ from the opinions of a number of people. I don’t really like Scarlett that much. I don’t see her as a figure of feminism or a powerful woman. Instead, she is patently manipulative, scheming, and except when times are very bad, spoiled rotten. Sure, there is evident strength in her when it needs to be there, but when her world is fine financially, she turns into the moral equivalent of a Jell-o mold. She is the stereotype of the fainting Southern belle, always looking for assistance to do any minor task and repaying any and every kindness shown to her by a man with fawning flattery. And except for those poor saps under her spell, it’s immediately obvious what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. She’s an attention whore.
Melanie is a far more interesting character because, while she is physically frail through most of the film, she is morally strong and exhibits a sort of true kindness that someone like Scarlett can see and benefit from, but can emulate only in its most pathetic and saddest form. Melanie is almost purely good, which is of course why Ashley loves her.
And Ashley…Jeez, what a mush. Seriously, he’s perhaps the most unappealing romantic male character ever conceived. The man exhibits one strong opinion in the film at one time, and does so after a decade of stringing Scarlett along by the nose. He’s so concerned with being a nice guy to everyone that he ends up being sort of an asshole.
Finally, we come to Rhett Butler. He’s impossible not to like. He’s morally corrupt, says and does what he pleases, and cares little about the opinions of others, but he looks good doing it. Butler has style. He has panache. He’s the reason women love bad boys.
All told, this is a film you have to watch. It’s not my particular cup of tea, honestly, but it is great and grand in a way that few films are. No other film screams “old Hollywood” the way this one does, and there are perhaps half a dozen scenes in this film that rank among the greatest ever filmed—I can think of three or four right now without even trying. There’s a reason the phrase “must see” exists, and Gone with the Wind was tailor-made for that phrase.
Why to watch Gone with the Wind: The first, best, and greatest definition of Hollywood blockbuster.
Why not to watch: Some of the remarks are cringe-worthy with modern sensibilities.