A spectacular landmark, considered by many to be the crowning achievement in classic cinema
“Gone with the Wind” (“GWTW”), a towering and emotional epic about survival, was and still is a landmark in filmmaking. Innovative with its lighting and shadows, camera angles, color, special effects, and iconic performances, it tells its story through the entire medium of film so brilliantly, it is arguably the pinnacle of movie-making entertainment. “GWTW” contains one of cinema’s foremost music scores, along with several of the most celebrated lines of dialogue in film history. Everything about this film is monumental - even the running time (the film runs 234 minutes, complete with overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music). But don’t let that scare you or stop you from watching. It is so riveting I once sat through the film twice in a row in a movie theater! It is fast paced and filled with spectacle, humor, drama, and awe. And it is my favorite classic film.
It came out in 1939, the greatest year for classic films, and it topped them all. Even with its grandeur and scope, “GWTW” is the personal story of “Scarlett O’Hara”, a beautiful, spoiled, spirited southern belle. Set in the Old South just before, during and after the American Civil War, it follows her journey as she repeatedly fights defeat, whether it be poverty, losing her land, or losing the object of her affections to another woman. She stops at nothing to get what she wants, and it makes for thrilling drama.
“GWTW” was based on the first and only novel by Margaret Mitchell, published in 1936. It was the most popular book of its time, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Mitchell sold the film rights just before the book became popular, and would have nothing to do with the film. Many people, including Hollywood executives, thought the 1037 page book would be impossible to turn into a film, but movie producer David O. Selznick defied them all. At the time, Selznick (who produced “GWTW”) was the head of his own studio, Selznick International Pictures, which he started in 1935. Prior to forming his own studio, he worked at MGM, then Paramount, became the Head of Production at RKO, and returned as a producer to MGM in 1933. Selznick had a great track record for producing outstanding films before creating his studio, including such classics as “Dinner at Eight”, "David Copperfield”, and film #13 of this blog, “King Kong”. Selznick International Pictures was not equip to churn out film after film, so his studio made fewer films, but all of esteemed quality. Selznick bought the rights for “GWTW’ one month after it was published for a reported $50,000 - a very high price for a book by an unknown author which had yet to become a best seller. Selznick was a perfectionist and wanted to make “GWTW” his way, so he oversaw every aspect of the film.
The production of “GWTW” was almost as turbulent as “Scarlett’s” journey. There were three directors and at least twelve writers, including Selznick himself. Sidney Howard wrote the bulk of the screenplay, and got the screen credit and the Oscar for it. In fact, there was no final shooting script, with script changes given to the actors almost daily. The film went over budget and over schedule, taking 125 days of actual shooting, and costing over $4 million to make (a lot of money in those days). In the end it was all worth it. “GWTW” was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, and won eight, including “Best Picture”. In addition, the Academy awarded it two honorary awards, one to William Cameron Menzies for his use of color, and a technical award to R.D. Musgrave for his special effects. When a film wins “Best Picture” the award is given to the producer, and this would be one of two Academy Awards Selznick would win out of six “Best Picture” nominations (his second win would be the following year for the Alfred Hitchcock directed “Best Picture” winner, “Rebecca”). In 1939 Selznick also received the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work. Even with all the important films he made, “GWTW” would become his signature film. He was married twice, the first time to MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene, and the second time to actress Jennifer Jones. He had three children, two of which (L. Jeffrey Selznick and Daniel Selznick) also became producers. David O. Selznick died in 1965 at the age of 63.
The story of “GWTW” romanticizes the Old South and slavery, and seen today this film can be jarringly racist. Its idyllic version of the south idealizes slavery, depicting stereotypical slaves who have no apparent desire for freedom. One must keep in mind the film was made in the late 1930s - a world very different than the one in which we now live. “Realism” in films, especially Hollywood films, was not as far advanced as we think of it now. Even if it falls short by today’s standards, Selznick actually made an effort not to degrade Blacks with the film, a progressive move in his day. He made changes from the book, removing the “n” word, a lynching, any references to the KKK, and other insulting elements. Even with its racism, "GWTW" is a huge achievement which raised the bar in filmmaking, and should not be dismissed for anyone interested in films. I’ll talk a bit more about this in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below.
Three directors contributed to “GWTW" - George Cukor, Victor Fleming and Sam Wood. Selznick had previously worked with Cukor, who was his first choice. Cukor worked on the film’s preproduction for about two years, and filmed only about the first two weeks of shooting. He had major disputes with Selznick over the script and the two suddenly didn’t see eye to eye. Making matters worse for Cukor, the film’s star, Clark Gable, was not comfortable with Cukor. There have been many theories as to why - either due to fear of losing the spotlight since Cukor was known as a “woman’s” director, or because Gable was uncomfortable that the openly gay Cukor knew of Gable’s sexual encounters with men early in his career. In either case, Selznick fired Cukor and replaced him with Victor Fleming, a director more Gable’s style. Fleming was tough and macho and worked with Gable before, including directing Gable's star making film “Red Dust” (film #6 on this blog). Fleming was in the process of filming “The Wizard of Oz”, but was immediately taken off that film to direct “GWTW”. He insisted Selznick make script changes, and ended up shooting the bulk of the film. He didn’t get along with Selznick or female star Vivien Leigh and walked off the film claiming a nervous breakdown. Director Sam Wood was brought in as his replacement. After two weeks, Fleming came back, and both he and Wood directed different scenes on different sets at the same time to finish the film. In the end only Fleming got screen credit and the “Best Director” Academy Award.
Clark Gable, who stars as "Rhett Butler", is an actor you've seen twice before in this blog - in "Red Dust" and "It Happened One Night”. I wrote more about him in both those posts. From the time people read the book, everyone thought of Clark Gable as "Rhett Butler". Selznick did not want to work with his father-in-law (MGM's Studio chief) in any way, shape or form, but needed Gable, who was MGM’s top star. He made a deal with MGM that Gable would be paid by Selznick, and MGM would get half of the film’s profits for seven years. Gable did not want the part due to all the public expectations of him in the role. So to entice him, MGM gave him time off to marry Carole Lombard. The exchange worked out for everyone, and Gable ended up giving his most beloved and iconic performance in "GWTW". He does the perfect job as the cynical, charming man who reminds us “I’m no gentleman”. There is a scene in which “Rhett” cries, and Gable had to be convinced to do it, thinking it would make him look weak - but it actually made him look real. Gable had dentures, and as a result his breath had a foul odor. Vivien Leigh was not thrilled kissing him throughout the film, but thankfully you can never tell her displeasure when you see them kiss.
One of Selznick’s biggest troubles in making “GWTW” was the casting of “Scarlett O’Hara”. He had a distinct vision of her in his mind but couldn’t think of an actress that fit it. He made his pursuit a public debate with contests, polls, and searches. Well over 1,000 women were seen for the part, and thirty two actresses did screen tests. Actress Paulette Goddard was the front runner. After two years of searching, while on the set filming the burning of Atlanta sequence (which I’ll talk more about in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below), he met Vivien Leigh. He finally found his “Scarlett”. Not only was he right about Leigh, but his search created prolonged national interest and excitement in the film well before it opened, helping to make “GWTW” the most eagerly awaited film in history. These were just two more facets of Selznick’s filmmaking genius.
Vivien Leigh, who stars as “Scarlett O’Hara”, became an international movie star, Hollywood legend, renowned beauty, and respected actress with “GWTW”. She was voted number 16 of the women on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. This was one of those rare magical occurrences when an actor and role blend so perfectly you can’t imagine any other person as the character. Leigh gives what is truly one of the screen’s greatest performances as “Scarlett”, who is no easy character to play. She is a bratty, selfish, flirtatious, slave owning Southern belle. One of her many famous lines in the film is “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill… as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” - and she does them all. “Scarlett” is a person we should hate, but Leigh is so beguiling and brings such humanity, you can’t help but feel for her. There is a masked vulnerability just beneath her bravery and confidence which I believe makes her endearing. It’s been said that Leigh was somewhat like “Scarlett” in that she was a fiercely determined person, and Leigh was determined to get this part. She had been wanting and planning on playing “Scarlett” for quite a while. Her visit to the set at the eleventh hour during the filming of the burning of Atlanta was a well-orchestrated ploy. Against all odds, this little know British actress ended up getting what she sought - the most coveted role in Hollywood history.
Born in India, Vivien Leigh started her professional acting career in England in 1935 on stage and in small film parts. She had moderate success, and at the time of “GWTW”, was recognized only in England. The very first shot of her in “GWTW” very cleverly introduces “Scarlett” and Leigh to the world for the first time. With this role everything changed and Vivien Leigh became known worldwide. She continued to work mostly on stage (her great love) and in films up until her last film in 1965. After “GWTW” she would make only nine more films, including "Waterloo Bridge", "That Hamilton Woman", "Caesar and Cleopatra", and her last film "Ship of Fools”. She would cement her screen immortality giving a second of the greatest performances in cinema in the 1951 classic “Streetcar Named Desire”, which will also be featured on this blog. She was nominated for two “Best Actress” Academy Awards, winning both - one for “GWTW” (making her the first British actress to win an acting Oscar), and a second for “Streetcar Named Desire”. She was also a Tony Award winner. Leigh was married twice, including her famous marriage to British actor Sir Laurence Olivier. They began an affair while filming the 1937 film "Fire Over England”, married in 1940, worked together on stage and screen, had a turbulent relationship, and divorced in 1961. Sadly, Leigh’s life was a challenging one riddled with illness, mood swings, manic depression, miscarriages, blackouts, and suicide threats. Olivier and acting were her true loves, and she performed while persevering through illness and pain. Always enchanting and moving to watch, we are fortunate to have some extraordinary performances (such as “Scarlett”) to enjoy time and time again. Vivien Leigh died in 1967 at the age of 53 from tuberculosis.
Leslie Howard stars as “Ashley Wilkes”. A British stage and screen actor and very big star whose onscreen persona was primarily an intellectual, romantic, matinee idol type, with some undefinable, dreamlike quality. Howard was a versatile actor - great in comedy as well as drama. He loathed being in “GWTW”, feeling too old, not handsome enough, and ridiculous in the role. He was coaxed into taking the part by Selznick who offered him a producer credit in another film at the time, “Intermezzo”, Ingrid Bergman’s first American film. Howard was quoted as saying about “GWTW”, "Terrible lot of nonsense. Heaven help me if I ever read the book”. And while he adequately fills the role of “Ashley”, that could be the reason it is not one of his most interesting portrayals. How sad “Ashley” is the role for which he is best remembered.
Leslie Howard began on the British stage and in silent short films. After fighting in WWI, he moved to New York where he became a major Broadway star and leading man. His first feature film was the 1930 film "Outward Bound”, and he garnered more success with the 1930 film “A Free Soul” opposite movie queen Norma Shearer, and the 1932 film “The Animal Kingdom”. He was nominated for a “Best Actor” Academy Award for the 1933 film “Berkeley Square”, and became one of the biggest box office stars of the 1930s. Not truly happy in Hollywood, he spent his entire career back and forth between England and Hollywood. He was nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar a second time for the 1938 film “Pygmalion”, but never won the award. Some of his other best films and performances include "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Pimpernel Smith”, "49th Parallel”, "Of Human Bondage”, “It’s Love I’m After”, "Romeo and Juliet”, and "The Petrified Forest” in which he also appeared in on Broadway. When the film version of “The Petrified Forest” came about, Howard insisted the little known actor named Humphrey Bogart reprise his Broadway role opposite Howard, and that launched Bogart’s career (who went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time). Howard married once, although had well-known affairs and mistresses throughout his marriage, most famously to actress Merle Oberon, and to Violette Cunnington with whom he lived Monday through Fridays, spending the weekends with his wife and children. Howard was very anti-Hitler and wanted to help England during WWII. He worked with the BBC on radio and in films to help with the war effort. After a last minute change of plans to get back home early, Leslie Howard boarded an airplane headed from Portugal to England. On June 1, 1943, his airplane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by enemy aircraft killing everyone on board. There are many theories, but to this day it is not known exactly why his plane was shot down. Leslie Howard was 50 years old and at the height of his career when he died.
Olivia de Havilland is outstanding as “Melanie Hamilton”. Even with all the classic films in which she appeared, her Oscar wins and nominated performances, this is the role for which she is most remembered. I talk more about Olivia in two previous posts, “The Heiress” and my post the day she died, which you can read HERE. As “Melanie”, Olivia radiates an unselfish kindness, tenderness, and honesty, and never overdoes it. While every other actress in the world was fighting to play “Scarlett”, Olivia was fighting to play “Melanie”. It was a change of pace from her usual Warner Brothers ingenue roles, and she had to be loaned out by Warner Brothers to Selznick to do the film. After George Cukor was let go from directing “GWTW", she would sneak to his house for insights and help with her role. Unbeknownst to her, Vivien Leigh did the same thing. With Olivia’s portrayal as the honorable, self-effacing “Melanie”, she earned her first Academy Award nomination, this time for “Best Supporting Actress”. She would go on to receive four additional “Best Actress” nominations, winning two Oscars. Olivia was the last remaining “GWTW” star until her death at 104 this past July.
Hattie McDaniel steals every scene in which she appears with her landmark performance as “Mammy”. McDaniel was a highly talented, versatile actress with impeccable comic timing and dramatic depth, both of which she shows in “GWTW”. While today we see “Mammy” as stereotypically racist, in its time it was a leap forward, as it was the first time a Black actor played such a high profile, fully developed and important role in a mainstream Hollywood film and was recognized for it. Let us not forget that during her time, when possible, scenes with Black actors were edited out of films when shown in the south. McDaniel endows “Mammy” with strength, heart, and sympathy. She makes us laugh and breaks our heart. In many ways “Mammy” grounds the film, always reminding us of the truth. For her brilliant work McDaniel won an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actress” (competing against her costar and real life friend Olivia De Havilland), making her the first Black person to win an Oscar, or even be nominated. This was groundbreaking. Appallingly, due to strict segregation rules at the time, she (along with her escort and white agent) was forced to sit at a segregated table at the back of the room at the Oscar ceremony, away from the rest of the cast. And because the film’s premiere was held in Atlanta, Georgia in a whites only theater, she was banned from attending it against Selznick’s wishes. Evidently, Clark Gable was outraged enough by this that he threatened not to attend the film’s premiere if his fellow Black actors were banned. Being a friend of Gable's, McDaniel convinced him to go. Apparently Gable also desegregated the set of “GWTW”.
Hattie McDaniel was born to two former slaves, and her father fought in the Civil War. She started her career as a singer-songwriter, appearing in minstrel shows, touring companies and eventually radio. She is credited with being the first Black woman to sing on the radio in the United States. She moved to Los Angeles in 1931, and not being able to get film work, she worked as a maid. Her film career began in 1932 in bits parts as maids, including “Blonde Venus” with Marlene Dietrich, and in 1933’s “I’m No Angel” starring Mae West. Her breakthrough was in "Judge Priest” in 1934 with Will Rogers. It was her first major role and she even got to sing in the film. Another breakthrough came in the 1935 classic “Alice Adams” starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray. In that film McDaniel started forming her sassy and opinionated screen persona. She continued to work steadily in small and large parts, often in stereotypical roles, as maids, and occasionally in musicals such as "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Showboat". As the 1940s progressed, the roles for which she was typecast were being phased out of Hollywood films, and thus her work opportunities dwindled. She appeared in nearly 100 films through 1949, working with just about every top star in classics such as "Imitation of Life", "The Little Colonel", "Libeled Lady", "Stella Dallas", "Nothing Sacred", "Carefree", "Since You Went Away", "They Died with Their Boots On", and many, many more. As her film career lessened, she returned to radio in 1947 where she starred in “The Beulah Show”, becoming the first Black actor to star in a weekly radio show. She was also an integral part of desegregating housing in Los Angeles. She was married four times. Hattie McDaniel died in 1952 at the age of 59 from breast cancer. An important and controversial figure, McDaniel never apologized for playing maids and stereotypes. Having worked at both, she was quoted as saying, “I'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid”. In 1947 she wrote an informative essay in The Hollywood Reporter on Hollywood and her roles at the time, which you can read HERE. All progress, including equality, is made step by step, and through her visibility, Hattie McDaniel took us a significant leap forward.
Butterfly McQueen also gives an iconic performance in “GWTW” as “Prissy”, where she delivers one of filmdom’s most famous lines, “I don't know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies”. In direct contrast to “Mammy”, the slave “Prissy” is simple-minded and lazy. McQueen hated the part saying in an interview it was a “difficult part for an intelligent person to play”. If one can get past the offensive stereotype and focus on McQueen’s acting, you’ll realize she is brilliantly convincing and filled with talent. Years later McQueen was quoted as saying “Now I am happy I did ‘Gone With the Wind’. I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s part of Black history. You have no idea how hard it is for Black actors, but things change, things blossom in time". I wrote a bit more about McQueen in my “Mildred Pierce” post.
Another actor I’ve mentioned in a past post (“High Noon”) is Thomas Mitchell who plays “Gerald O’Hara”. This Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award winning actor is outstanding as “Scarlett’s” father, reminding her the value of Tara, the land that grounds her. Mitchell appeared in five films in 1939, all of which are classics, the other four being “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Only Angels Have Wings”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Stagecoach” (for which he won that year’s “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award).
While the cast is filled with great actors and actresses, I’ll write about several of them in future posts. There are two with very little screen time I thought I’d quickly mention as fun trivia:
George Reeves who plays “Stuart Tarleton” (one of the two twins in the opening scene courting “Scarlett”) would go on to superstardom playing “Superman” in the classic 1950s TV series "Adventures of Superman".
Jane Darwell who appears at “Mrs. Merriwether” was a prolific character actress who would win a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award the following year as “Ma Joad” in the classic “The Grapes of Wrath”.
A lesser-mentioned hero of “GWTW” is the film’s production designer, William Cameron Menzies. He made detailed drawings of every scene, depicting exactly the look, mood and personality of the film. While the directors of the film kept coming and going, they each used Menzies’ drawings as a reference for exactly what to shoot. I'll talk more about him in a future blog entry.
Also exceptional are the film’s costumes by Walter Plunkett. His costumes impeccably help create tone and atmosphere, placing us in the old South. I spoke very briefly about Plunkett in the "Singin' in the Rain”, post . He was one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers, and like Menzies, I'll discuss him more in a future post.
The score for “GWTW” was composed by legendary Max Steiner whom I wrote about in two posts, “King Kong”, and “Mildred Pierce”. His score for “GWTW” is considered among the best ever written, and was ranked at #2 on "AFI's 100 YEARS OF FILM SCORES”.
“Gone with the Wind” brought a new sophistication to film storytelling that would carry into the 1940s and beyond. This spectacle left an indelible mark on cinema. So clear your schedule and get ready for a true cinematic masterpiece. Enjoy “Gone with the Wind”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The iconic burning of Atlanta scene was the first scene of “Gone with the Wind” to be filmed. It was shot before the role of “Scarlett” was cast, and the figures you see on the cart are not Clark Gable or Vivien Leigh, but two doubles. Vivien Leigh was on the set during filming with Laurence Olivier. She orchestrated an introduction to David O. Selznick through his brother Myron Selznick, who was Olivier’s agent and agreed to take on Leigh as a client. The story goes that David knew the second he saw Leigh that he found his “Scarlett”.
The burning buildings in that scene were old movie sets they needed to clear away to make room for sets for “GWTW”, so they staged this elaborate fire. The building you see falling in the fire behind the moving horse cart was actually the set piece of the gates from the 1933 classic, “King Kong”. The scene was shot in one very well planned take. No second chances with burning buildings.
Another iconic moment in “GWTW” is the extraordinary shot when “Scarlett” walks among the wounded and the camera pulls back to show hundreds of soldiers on the ground. Evidently, Selznick couldn't get enough extras that day, so many of the bodies seen were actually dummies, and the extras lying next to them would move their arms or legs to make them seem real.
“Gone with the Wind” is filled with famous lines such as "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again” and "After all, tomorrow is another day!”. Its most famous quote is Rhett Butler’s line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”, which was voted #1 on the "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 MOVIE QUOTES”. This film was made during the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, and Selznick argued for months to keep that line in the film (in the book it reads "My dear, I don't give a damn.”). It was going to be changed to “My dear, I don’t care”, but Selznick successfully convinced the censors that changing the line would make a mockery of the film.
A case was made a few months ago targeting “GWTW” for removal from the streaming service HBO MAX due to racism, and indeed the film was removed for a couple of weeks. I feel it is a very slippery slope to start banning films for being racist or politically incorrect. Once we open Pandora’s box and start banning one film, where do we stop? Certainly in classic films Blacks, American Indians, Latinos, Asians, Jews, women, gays and lesbians, and just about every other minority have been portrayed in a stereotypical and often degrading way, particularly by today’s much more developed standards. Even Southerners (white and Black) are often portrayed as bumbling idiots. These films are a product of the times in which they were made. They show what was acceptable, what audiences thought was funny, and what issues were pressing at the time. We can’t erase history no matter how unjust it may have been, but we can learn from viewing the past. Being informed can stop history from repeating itself. These films remind us how far we’ve come and make us think about how far we still have to go. While containing racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, and so on, the classic films that contain these things also contain something in them that makes us keep watching them. Looking beyond the political incorrectness and stereotypes, there is usually something to be found such as a human truth, some artistic leap, or some emotion we are left with that makes them enduring. I’m certain when we gain perspective some 20 years from now we will see inappropriate things in the films of today to which we are currently blind. It is the way of the human being. I won’t be pointing out these elements in every film that contains them, but only when I feel it is necessary to address.