Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award. Join me every other day from now until March 4th for the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
Nineteen Thirty-Nine is credited as the single greatest year of American movies. Fittingly, it ended with a Best Picture win for Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, considered the greatest of all American films and the only Oscar winner of this decade that I actually agree with.
I have my problems with Gone With the Wind, but it would be un-American to carp about an American institution. I’ve seen it several times since first seeing it as a teenager and every time is a new experience. I love the sheer scope of the film and the performances are incredible. The landscape of the film is like nothing I’ve seen before or since, providing the Civil War as a fiery backdrop to the struggling romance between stubborn southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and that world-hardened rouge Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who is determined to win her affections away from that dullard Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
After all these years I am still aghast at the sheer magnitude of the production itself, and the performances from Gable, Leigh, Olivia DeHavilland, Thomas Mitchell and Supporting Actress winner Hattie McDaniel. And yet . . . I think the film suffers at the mercy of its own running time. At nearly four hours I think Gone With the Wind loses some momentum in the second act – at least up until the last 20 minutes or so. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but I get the sense that after Scarlett’s legendary proclamation that “I’ll never be hungry again.” there is a tone shift and the next hour and the movie kind of drags.
What is strong in the film is the placement of its characters. Everyone in the film might seem like a reactive stereotype, an allegory not to historical fact but to how we in the audience imagine Southerners in the Civil War might have behaved. Yet, there’s some subtext here.
Gone With the Wind presents the south of the Civil War more or less the way we heard about it, with its southern belles, suitors, the plantation life, rigid social code of conduct and then, placed at its center, is a woman who has no use for any of those things. Scarlett O’Hara grows and changes, even if her treatment of men doesn’t mature at all. It is easy to view Scarlett as just a temperamental man-hungry southern belle, prone to hissy fits; a woman who pursues one man with passion while falling reluctantly into the arms of another.
Scarlett is the antithesis of the world in which she exists, stubborn and independent, she is man-hungry and pursues the dunderheaded Ashley Wilkes for no other reason than that he is promised to someone else. In this way she was ahead of her time. She is more aggressively sexual than the social order of even the 30s might have allowed. She married to keep from being an old maid, then pursues one man while resisting another. Then she turns away the marriage bed for fear of losing her figure to childbirth.
Perhaps the reason the movie fascinates us so much is that we are taken into her world and we see it through her eyes, whether we side with her or not. She sees what she wants and takes it; she is keen but not perceptive. If she had been at all perceptive then she might have seen that the roguish Rhett Butler, whom she resists, is almost her exact equal. He is no gentlemen, he visits Miss Whattling’s house of ill-repute and openly admits that he runs blockade only for profit. Yes, they are perfect for one another and the reason we are so willing to fall into their romantic struggle is because we know that their attitudes will be the social norm, set in place in the years after the Civil War. Morality and the social rigors will begin to soften as the world turns rapidly into the 20th century.
Scarlett exists at a point in time when the function of a young woman is to look pretty, land a husband and have babies. We know that Scarlett has no use for the social order, she is used to doing what is necessary to get what she wants. What is most unexpected is the way in which she casts off the role of southern lady and begins toiling in the dirt to save the family farm. Her sisters complain about callused hands and sore backs but if you step back and compare Scarlett with the other women in the movie, you will see a woman that will survive once the war has ended because she has learned how to face it head on. She is a survivor, she has learned how to scheme and manipulate to get what she wants. In a way, her passion in life is paved by the risky pursuit of handsome Ashley Wilkes, not because she loves him but by virtue of the fact that she can’t have him.
Strangely enough, it takes a man to make Scarlett so fierce. When we first meet her, she’s sitting on the porch at Tara, her face bright and cheery in the Georgia sun. She is surrounded by a flock of potential suitors. This would be the position she would seek to find again in life, the option of having her pick of the man she wants even when he belongs to someone else.
Gone With the Wind is, first and foremost, Scarlett’s story. She provides the narrative and the entire business of the war is seen through her eyes. We never see any battles, only a street lined with wounded men when she goes into town to fetch a doctor for Melanie. Slavery is not seen as a criminal act from her point of view, and in fact it is barely seen at all. Two women, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), work in the house but are probably. Mammy’s function seems to be as a surrogate mother to Scarlett, her role is a great deal larger than one expects. Prissy is seen a simple underling. From the point of view of a southern belle at the time she wouldn’t have been witness to the beatings or the slaves held in chains. The movie has been blamed for having a naive attitude about the events of the Civil War, but given her view of things, it seems pretty accurate. One scene involving the Ku Klux Klan was written but thrown out. I think that was a wise move because it would have broken up the narrative flow. Seeing the Klan and knowing how we feel about them would have taken us out of Scarlett’s world view.
That point of view allows us to see Scarlett grow over the course of the movie, from winsome southern belle, to frustrated widow, to a woman who rises from the ashes of the war, determined to never be hungry again. After that lies her transformation to revolutionary as she determines to return Tara to its former glory by working the field herself. By the time she arrives back to Tara to find it plundered by Yankees, we know that Scarlett’s stubbornness will take hold and she won’t give up until she gets what she wants. We know she will prevail even when others give up in distress.
Inside her personal struggle to save her home and keep her pride, she still pursues an unwise sexual misadventure in her lust for Ashley Wilkes. Despite his devotion to Melanie she presses on, even as Rhett Butler makes his intentions known. She thinks he’s a brute, a hard-drinking, womanizing rogue, but if she stops to think about it, she’s not much better. They’re perfect for one another. “You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how” he tells her and in a sense, she knows he’s right. Both are skilled at breaking the rules of engagement in order to get what they want, reputation be damned.