For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)
For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?
It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.
It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?
GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.
There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.
These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.
And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.
The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).
Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.
But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.
GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Queeny: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.
The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.
It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.