It's been a while since I've run an Oscar feature (I know you've missed them), and since the ceremony is this week I thought we'd have a go with 1939's seminal Gone With the Wind. This might actually be interesting for some of you because many of you have seen this, or have at least heard of it. As for me, it is certainly a spectacle, but I'm not totally sure how I feel about it.
The movie is the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel about the fall of the south in the Civil War. It is a passionate romance of characters and place, and the adaptation has become one of the icons of American cinema.
And, truly, every inch of it is iconic. The photography is lush and evocative of the much-romanced south we all think of. Its scope is monumental (the movie comes in at just under 4 hours), a dramatic megalith on the scale of Wagner. It is worth the watch if only to witness the perfection of craft in such a young industry. But then, there is also the rest of it about which I am conflicted.
Most of that "rest of it" is the protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara, embodied by Vivien Leigh. The first time I watched the movie several years ago, I HATED it because of one or the both of them. Leigh has always bothered me as an actress (see: A Streetcar Named Desire), but her character in the movie is just as irritating. Of course, that is her arc, falling from spoiled plantation queen to fending for her very existence as the Northern imperialists rape the land she grew up on. Upon second viewing I have become more sympathetic, but only some. The movie is made watchable because of Clark Gable's potrayal of Rhett Butler, Scarlett's lover. By the end I felt to cheer as he finally tells her what I have been wishing to tell her the entire movie.
Is such an irritating character and her portrayal worth so much of your life in exchange for unfiltered cinematic beauty? This is one of the deeper questions pursuers of art must face. Why do you like watching movies? Is it for their aesthetic quality, for stories that resonate with you or challenge you, or some combination of these or other factors? Does a broken and frustrating character make a "bad" movie? I don't know, but this is why we watch anyway.
There are lots of ill feelings on my part, but overall I still think this is one of the more important films of our history. Together with The Wizard of Oz, also from the same year, color film signaled an important, if slow, industry shift. It is one of the rare films that becomes immortal on its own. Many require several adaptations or sequels, but Gone With the Wind sits in a very privileged class. It is appropriately ubiquitous, even if it remains divisive. I recommend it both as an historical artifact and as a worthy film.
Gone With the Wind features Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, and Hattie McDaniel, and is not rated.
Writer: Sydney Howard
Director: Victor Fleming
Also, if you don't feel like four hours, here's the condensed version from Carol Burnett:
by Chase Harrison