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Friday, April 11, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Gone With The Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Flemming
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel

To say that Gone With The Wind is a problematic masterpiece is an understatement. It’s depiction of slavery is abhorrent, but it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t meant to be a history lesson. This is an epic romance which takes place in a fairytale South that never existed, a fact which is apparent in its foreword, which states: “Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…” With that as the set-up, you can’t expect to get anything other than a severely white-washed look at the era of American slavery. The world depicted in this film isn’t really worth exploring except for the way that it acts as a backdrop for one of the best characters of fiction, Scarlett O’Hara (played by the fabulous Vivien Leigh).

I find it strange whenever a woman describes herself as being “a traditional Southern woman, like Scarlett O’Hara,” because the entire point of Scarlett is that she’s not your typical woman - Southern or otherwise. Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) is the epitome of the nice, Southern woman while Scarlett is the iconoclast, a woman constantly going against the way things are properly done (such as when she insists on dancing when she’s meant to be in mourning). But it’s easy to understand why women would want to identify themselves with Scarlett, a woman who isn’t entirely likeable but who is cunning, who gets things done and who is, most importantly, a survivor. This isn’t a woman who shuts down and waits to be rescued; she pulls herself up and gets things done while the women around her (especially her sisters) whine and cry. Scarlett’s drive and self-sufficiency are admirable and no doubt a large part of why and how she entered into cultural mythology, especially when you take into account that both the novel and the film entered public consciousness during the Depression. When Scarlett says, “Tomorrow is another day,” she wasn’t just speaking for herself, she was speaking for everyone living a day-to-day existence.

Personally, I love Scarlett. Is she selfish? Yes. Is she a bitch? You bet. But every time she’s swatted down, she just gets back up again, more determined than ever. She’s also kind of hilarious. The relationship between Scarlett and Rhett (Clark Gable) is one of my favourites in film because despite the heavier scenes, there is a wonderful lightness and camaraderie between them. Rhett doesn’t just put up with her crap, he’s amused by it. He enjoys her little temper tantrums, her attempts at manipulation, and her need to be spoiled coincides nicely with his desire to spoil her (one of my favourite scenes between them takes place just after they’ve married and Scarlett is shovelling food into her mouth like it’s going out of style and Rhett jovially suggests that she might want to slow down).

However, as wonderful as the chemistry between Leigh and Gable is, it also presents something of a problem because it makes it all the more inconceivable that Scarlett could spend as much time as she does hung up on drippy Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). It is believable to me that Scarlett would use the idea that she’s infatuated with Ashley to get under Rhett’s skin, but it takes a real suspension of disbelief to buy that Scarlett would sincerely want Ashley, who is such a non-entity that it’s surprising that even Melanie wants him. Howard apparently didn’t want the role, which perhaps explains the lack of “there” there, and his depiction of Ashley really does hurt the movie.

Of course, there are a lot of things that hurt this movie. It doesn’t particularly bother me that Scarlett is the heroine of the film and also a slave owner, because few things irritate me more than slavery/Civil War era films where a character is coded as “good” by being a Southern plantation owner whose slaves are free and work his or her land voluntarily – that’s an easy way out and not very realistic. I think it’s okay that Scarlett is a product of her time and place, a time and place where she would have been raised thinking that it was natural that she should be able to “own” other human beings, regardless of how wrong that concept actually is. Besides which, Scarlett is so self-centered that she probably assumes that everyone, black and white, male and female, is working for her in some capacity. That being said, however, the film’s depiction of slaves is deeply problematic, with the slave characters being either infantilized creatures with no hope of being able to take care of themselves (a character like Prissy), or cheerful people without any particular desire to be “freed,” who seem to want nothing more than to take care of the exasperating white people in their lives (a character like Mammy). If there is any depth to the slave characters, and in the case of Mammy, there certainly is, it is due entirely to the actors. Hattie McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, brings shades to Mammy that wouldn’t otherwise exist and makes it almost believable that she’d stick with Scarlett rather than trying to make her way as a freed woman.

There are other problems, too. At 238 minutes, this is a long movie that manages to feel even longer than it actually is. The pacing of the film is bad, perhaps because it went through three directors (Victor Flemming, the credited director and the one who was given the Oscar, as well as George Cukor and Sam Wood, both of whom are uncredited for their work), but also because I think this might be a case of too literal an adaptation. Admittedly, I’ve never read the book Gone With The Wind and I know that certain things were cut out (like the fact that Scarlett had children with all her husbands, not just Rhett), but whenever I watch this, it just seems like the screenwriters were determined to cram everything from the book into the movie, which results in a film that tends to drag in places. There are some great sequences (the burning of Atlanta, the scenes immediately following the end of the war, that great shot where the camera pans back to show the wounded soldiers) but in between there are long stretches that seem to take days to watch. I have no problem calling this film a masterpiece, but it is a qualified masterpiece if ever there was one.

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