Best Picture: GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
By Witney Seibold on May 8, 2014
Week twelve, and Witney Seibold is now butting heads with the single most popular film of all time.
Seriously, what can I say about Gone with the Wind? Can I comment on its greatness without coming across as a drooling fanboy? Can I comment on its enormity without seeming derivative of other critics? Can I give you a new perspective that hasn’t been recorded in endless film journals at least a hundred times already? What I can do is give you my personal take on this movie, a movie which you have seen, as has just about everyone.
Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind is not only one of the best films to have won Best Picture, but one of the best American films, period. When it comes to the glory of Old Hollywood, the grandness of the historical epic, the humor of a selfish protagonist, the wonders of a complex romance, the halcyon longing for a bygone era, and the generous largesse of pure cinematic imagery, Gone with the Wind pretty much set the standard. To this day, it remains the single most successful films of all time, once you adjust for inflation (In 1939, Gone with the Wind made nearly $200 million. When ticket price is adjusted, that’s about $1.6 billion). It also won 10 Academy Awards, and stayed in theaters for years. If you haven’t seen it, then you must cease reading this article, and go watch it immediately. See it on a big screen if you can, but a TV works too. Just get this thing in your brain.
Gone with the Wind is a glory. It may be nearly four hours long, but it moves along at a speedy and watchable clip; Not once will you feel bored or even slowed down. It manages to capture the enormity of war and years of history, but keeps its hugeness grounded in the shoes of a single, compelling character.
And the main reason that Gone with the Wind still works so well is, it seems to me, Scarlett O’Hara herself, as played by Vivian Leigh. Scarlett O’Hara is – how do I put this? – a complete and utter bitch. She’s a spoiled, whiny socialite whose only true life ambition is to marry Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), even though he clearly has no feelings for her, and spends his adult life caring for his unceasingly kind wife Melanie (a great Olivia de Havilland). She’s selfish, shallow, mean, and narcissistic. Her only good quality is that she has an unflagging need to survive, and a huge amount of wherewithal when it comes to keeping afloat in dire situations. She’s the cinematic version of Becky Sharp from William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
And yet we love her. I love Scarlett O’Hara. She’s so full of life and energy, it’s hard not to be swept up in her personality. You can understand why all the men in Gone with the Wind find her to be so compelling. She’s like the girl in high school who would flirt with you so you would do her homework for her. And you’d do it too, because she was so pretty and kind, even though you knew for certain that she didn’t give a damn about you, and would probably go make out with her much hotter boyfriend in five minutes’ time.
The relationship between Scarlett and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable, now starring in his third Best Picture winner after It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty) is also of vital importance to making this classic film classic. Rhett is a delightful, good looking, wealthy cad who doesn’t seem to care about anything but his own hedonism. He has Scarlett pegged from the very start as an ambitious and selfish person, and he loves her for it. His only hope, as he openly states, is to get her to admit to her selfishness and give up on her dreams of being Ashley Wilkes’ kept woman. Scarlett and Rhett are not traditionally good people, but we admire one another’s knowledge of each other. When they finally do marry late in the film, it seems like it was meant to be. But Gone with the Wind is not a love story, really. It’s more about Scarlett and her need to survive.
Is Gone with the Wind racist? It features a few black characters, and they are all – as some critics have said – broad black stereotypes. I will say that GWTW is, in fact, not racist, and the broad black characters are actually treated with complexity and respect. Are they slaves? Well, yes, but GWTW is set in the South during the Civil War. Just because it’s matter-of-fact about slavery rather than constantly tut-tutting it doesn’t make it racist. Indeed, Hattie McDaniel, who played the wise Mammy, was the first black actress to be nominated and to win an Academy Award. If anything, Gone with the Wind is oddly progressive. And just because Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) is obnoxious doesn’t mean she’s a racist character.
Gone with the Wind also nails something that has been hinted at in previous Best Picture winners, but wasn’t fully successful about until now: Encapsulating history, and lamenting a time past. In previous films like Cimarron and Cavalcade, filmmakers tried to capture the general progression of time, and how small actions of individuals can have lasting inter-generational impact. Gone with the Wind, with its glorious color photography, epic length, and unerring views of humanity, managed to do this, all while wrapped in a funny, interesting melodrama.
1939 was a banner year for American film, having given us not only GWTW, but The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Young Mr, Lincoln. And now that we’re passing out of the 1930s in Nerdist’s Best Picture project, we are entering a glory phase for Hollywood films. Some stretches are going to be awesome. The 1940s is one of them. The 1970s will be another.
Join me next week for Rebecca.