Gone with the Wind (United States, 1939)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Last week, the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 best American films of all time. Not surprisingly, Gone with the Wind placed in the Top 10 (#4, in fact). However, although this epic romantic melodrama is undoubtedly one of the most popular and beloved motion pictures ever to grace the silver screen, it is also arguably the most overrated. Gone with the Wind is a very good movie, perhaps bordering on being great, but its subject matter and running time (which is easily 60 minutes too long) argue against its status as a masterpiece. As for its high placing on the AFI's list... it isn't the only travesty on that roster, but it is one of the most obvious.

Gone with the Wind is, simply put, a tale of two halves. The movie is divided by an intermission into a pair of roughly-equal segments. The first, which is brilliant and consistently captivating, covers the time period of the Civil War, beginning shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and ending during Sherman's march through Atlanta. The post-intermission half, which dishes out the suds, picks up at the end of the Civil War and concludes about eight years later. This portion of Gone with the Wind, while still retaining a degree of appeal and narrative interest, spins its wheels frequently.

Nevertheless, viewing Gone with the Wind on television pales in comparison to seeing it projected on a motion picture screen. New Line Cinema has chosen to re-release the film (which is now in its sixth major revival) for its 59th anniversary. (Why not wait a year for the 60th?) Anyone who loves movies but has only seen this one on TV or video is heartily encouraged to visit the nearest participating venue. Theatrically, Gone with the Wind is an entirely different experience from its small-screen counterpart; some of the second-half narrative tedium is effaced by the glorious visuals. With a restored three-strip Technicolor print that preserves all of the original's deep, vibrant colors and digitally-enhanced sound, this picture has never looked or sounded better.

Gone with the Wind has one of the best-known storylines of any film, due in large part to the popularity of the source material, Margaret Mitchell's best-selling 1936 book. It's essentially a sumptuous soap opera set around Civil War times in the deep South. The main character is Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), the spoiled, manipulative daughter of an Irish immigrant plantation owner (Thomas Mitchell, who would later play Uncle Billy in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life). Scarlett has two sisters, but she is by far the most spirited of the three O'Hara girls, and her father, seeing her as his successor, teaches her lessons about the importance of the land. "It's the only thing that lasts... the only thing worth fighting for," he comments in the face of war.

Scarlett is secretly in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is about to marry the gentle, demure Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland). When Scarlett confesses her love to Ashley, he admits his feelings for her, but notes that Melanie will make a much better wife. Immediately after this meeting, Scarlett has her first encounter with the irrepressible Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the cynical, smart hero who eventually falls in love with her. They are two headstrong likes who simultaneously repel and attract one another. When Scarlett remarks, "You, Sir, are no gentleman," Rhett's smiling, easy response is, "And you're no lady."

The bulk of the film follows a romantic quadrangle as it unfolds against the backdrop of war and reconstruction in and around Atlanta and the O'Hara plantation, Tara. Scarlett is in love with Ashley, or thinks she is, but he won't leave his wife. Melanie loves both her husband and Scarlett, who improbably becomes her best friend. Rhett is smitten with Scarlett, and she is clearly interested in him, but the real question is how long it will take for her to recognize the depth of her feelings. Ultimately, when Rhett has finally had enough, he walks out of her life after answering "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" to her plaintive query about what she's supposed to do without him.

The pre-intermission portion of Gone with the Wind, which runs about 115 minutes, is glorious from both a visual and an emotional standpoint. It's a grand tale of love and loss in the midst of this country's most bitter war. Most importantly, it shows Scarlett's development from a vain, spoiled brat into a hardened, determined young woman. Her relationship with Rhett is there, but kept carefully in the background. There is sadness, humor, and a number of breathtaking shots of Scarlett silhouetted against a reddish sunset or the backdrop of Atlanta in flames. The film's most lingering image -- that of thousands of Confederate wounded paving an Atlanta street -- occurs during this part of the movie.

The second half, with its repetitive concentration on Scarlett's back-and-forth, do-I-love-him-or-not relationship with Rhett, is less successful. This stuff is real soap opera material, and, even as well- acted and well-presented as the narrative is, there's no mistaking it for anything else. If it didn't run on for so long, it would be a lot more bearable, but Gone with the Wind threatens to wear out its welcome long before the end title appears. The problem is that the bulk of the story is really told in the first half, so there's a lot of filler in the post-intermission material.

Gone with the Wind stands as a romantic monument to the Old South -- an homage to an era and a lifestyle long gone. The opening title states: "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. 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 of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind." This clearly illustrates where the film's sympathies lies, and it isn't with the often-grim plight of the slaves (in fact, slavery is largely treated as a neutral, or even benevolent, institution).

One of the tests of the lasting impact of any film is determining whether it's still effective decades after its initial release. Gone with the Wind looks so good that it is surprising to consider its actual age. It's hard to believe that many of the people involved with this film have long since died. Of course, period pieces should not be constrained by the era in which they're made, only by the one in which they're set. The storyline, while "progressive" and "modern" for the 1930s, is a little tame for the 1990s (hence the MPAA's "G" rating), but, in its three-dimensional depiction of Scarlett and Rhett, it's rarely naive. The dialogue is often brilliant, and some of the Rhett/Scarlett exchanges are particularly clever. Gone with the Wind avoids becoming hopelessly maudlin by peppering the lengthy storyline with a variety of lively and humorous sequences.

Probably as much has been written about Scarlett and Rhett as about Casablanca's Rick and Ilsa. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were perfectly cast in the leading roles -- she was a relative unknown who was "discovered" almost by accident after an exhaustive casting period; he was an established idol. They fit together perfectly, and, while their chemistry isn't as overwhelming as that of Bogart and Bergman, it's pretty close. As with all couples, their glances and body language say as much or more than their words, and, especially in Scarlett's case, are always more truthful. The characters are fascinating, both on their own and in their interaction with each other. Scarlett is a devious manipulator with a dangerous charm (beware her when she bats her eyelashes); Rhett sees through her at every turn, but, even as smart as he is, he can't help falling for her.

There are a number of noteworthy supporting players. The two with the most screen time (aside from Gable and Leigh) are Leslie Howard and Olivia De Havilland. Both portray low-key characters, but do it so well that we develop a deep sympathy for them and their plight. When it comes to the games of the heart engaged in by Scarlett and Rhett, Ashley and Melanie are out of their league. Another standout is Hattie McDaniel, whose brilliant Mammy (the housekeeper at Tara) steals scenes from the more prominent characters. McDaniel brings Mammy to life, and, while she's not three-dimensional, she's real. Mammy is also evidence that Gone with the Wind was capable of transcending (at least in part) the too-easy black stereotypes that were in evidence during the 1930s.

When discussing the creative forces behind Gone with the Wind, one rarely hears the name of Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), the credited director. (He was actually one of four men to helm the project.) Instead, Gone with the Wind is referred to as "a David O. Selznick Production," because Selznick was the driving force behind the movie's development. As Producer or Executive Producer, Selznick was instrumental in making over 50 films, including titles like King Kong, A Tale of Two Cities, A Star Is Born, Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Third Man. With four directors, over a dozen uncredited screenwriters, and several cinematographers, Selznick proved to be the creative glue that held Gone with the Wind together. This was his child -- an obsession that consumed him for years.

To date, no film has sold more box-office tickets than Gone with the Wind. Domestically, the tally almost doubles that for the phenomenally-popular Titanic. Of course, when the movie was first released, it wasn't just another motion picture -- it was a spectacle, an event. Even though the habits of movie- goers have changed over the years, it's easy to see why this film provoked such an outpouring of praise and adulation during its initial release, and why its stature has grown with the passage of decades. Gone with the Wind has flaws, but it's still undeniably a classic and a legend.

Gone with the Wind (United States, 1939)

Ranked #112 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 3:42
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1