January 12, 2012

#6: Gone with the Wind

 There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South...

 The title of this one looms so large that the screen can't even contain it all at once. Max Steiner's score sweeps us away immediately and we're launched into Victor Fleming's 1939 southern saga Gone with the Wind, adapted from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Winner of ten Academy Awards in what would be one of the greatest years in American cinema, Gone with the Wind remains to this day Hollywood's indisputable champion of melodrama and historical fiction. AND it's even fun to watch!

Company: not quite enough for a cotillion, but we made do -- Ryan and Paul, our most magnanimous hosts; Elizabeth, de Havifan (a fan of de Havilland); Kecia, swooning for Rhett; Bret, which rhymes with Rhett; and Hannah, a fair Southern belle.

Cuisine: we never went hungry again. Kecia made chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo with brown rice and black bean corn bread, and Paul made some delicious taco dip. Drinks were a-flowing.

So I guess I was mistaken all this time in believing that our last movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was the longest movie on the list, but Gone with the Wind beats it by eight minutes (twenty-two if you include the overture, entr'acte and exit music). However, due to the long stretches of inaction and sand, that last movie feels about twice as long as this one, which opens on our heroine giggling and flirting with two young soldiers and never lets up for a minute. Scarlett O'Hara (Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, winning her first of two Oscars playing Southern belles) has every boy's attention. Charming to a fault, we see immediately that she's vain and selfish. Once another girl is mentioned, we hear, "who want to know anything about her?" No one matters but Scarlett. Leigh plays her with great relish and incredible detail. I love knowing that one of the other main choices to play this role was Charlie Chaplin's wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, whose ambiguous marital status at the time was thought to be too tumultous and might bring controversy and scandal to filming. Leigh, though, was living with Lawrence Olivier at the time, as both of their spouses had refused to divorce them. C'mon!

Anyhow, anyhow. The story involves the long, involved, on-again-off-again romance between this plantation owner's daughter and the handsome Rhett Butler (Oscar nominee and dreamboat Clark Gable), who's been disowned by his family in South Carolina and breaks the mold by assuring his Confederate allies that they cannot win a ground war against the North (which history would validate). At nearly four hours, the film takes its sweet time and letting this romance fester, flounder and find its way, as Scarlett makes her way through life, husbands, war and tragedy.


William Cameron Menzies, the man who invented the job title "production designer," was awarded a technical Oscar "for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood," and he and the art director and cinematographer certainly use color to enhance and dramatize every scene. How much less visually exciting would this huge charity bazaar be in black and white, especially considering that in this scene Scarlett's dressed in black, mourning her first husband, and is taunted by color everywhere?

 Can you find Waldo Scarlett?

When war ravages her town in the Atlanta Campaign, Scarlett is obligated to stay behind and fulfill her promise to her beloved Ashley (Leslie Howard) that she take care of his pregnant wife and her dearest friend Melanie (a wonderful Olivia de Havilland). She's out of her mourning attire, but her world is suddenly drained of color as she wanders through the seemingly jaundiced expanse of wounded soldiers, searching for a doctor to help her. God knows Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) won't be much if any help. ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!") In this way, Fleming helps us to see Scarlett's world through her eyes, matching the visual palette to the colorful emotional landscape of the novel.

"As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

I mean, GOD. How much burnt orange is there in this film? This iconic image of Scarlett standing on the near-ruins of her family's beloved plantation Tara sets up parallel storylines as the south is defeated and the age of Reconstruction begins, both for the deeply divided nation and the flawed but admittedly resourceful and resilient Ms. O'Hara. She quickly puts her remaining family and newly-freed slaves (nothing much is said about them, more on that later) to work picking cotton on her farm and struggling to get by.

The second half of this epic story begins with Scarlett at her lowest low point, and observes her as she connives, lies and cheats her way into a place of wealth and power in the lives of the men she doesn't love and the women she betrays. Nearly everyone sees her for the deceitful bitch she is, save maybe her second husband Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye) whose untimely death leaves the door open for Rhett to finally propose, and dear sweet Melanie, the only kind and virtuous person in the whole movie (save maybe Mammy, played by the inspiring Hattie McDaniel).

There's been a lot of criticism about the film's depiction of black slaves, particularly their supposed congeniality and eagerness to fight for their country. The film premiered nearly seventy-five years after slavery was abolished, so it was nearly out of the contemporary mindset of the time, but Jim Crow laws still ruled the south and true civil rights wouldn't be won for another couple decades. It's such a sting to hear that although McDaniel was rightfully awarded the Best Supporting Actress prize for this film, her statue was a statuette, in a way counting her as 3/5 of a actress. Her performance has stood the test of time, as complete as she could make it. It's a historical character, one way out of date, and she's not really given much chance to do anything besides be a stereotype, but her commanding presence leads the way through the film, and we have Hattie to thank.

The film's psychological torture games between Scarlett and Rhett feel as contemporary and electric as any written today, thanks to the winning screenplay by Sidney Howard. I have a feeling I should really read this book. I love the similarities between these scenes and the fights that Leigh has with Marlon Brando twelve years later in A Streetcar Named Desire. I think we know it will never work out, that Scarlett is too selfish and too conniving to know any other way to act, any other way to treat fellow human beings, and even when the ultimate tragedy strikes and she's finally changed, it's all been for naught. It's too late. He doesn't give a damn. Do we relish in watching her suffer? Do we love the schaudenfreude? Or do we want Rhett and Scarlett to be together forever? Is tomorrow another day? We want a happy ending... don't we?

No matter what, I think audiences can agree that Scarlett O'Hara gets the blood boiling, and her epic journey through love and war is one that hasn't yet been matched. Boy. I had only seen this once before in college, and it was nice to see it again, knowing who everyone was, knowing how it would all end, and taking that into context. I recently heard a study on NPR that said people actually enjoying reading books when they know the ending, since some of the anxiety is gone and one can pick up on foreshadowing details that would otherwise be missed. That's a good a reason as any I can think of to rewatch a lot of these movies once I'm done with this list. Gone with the Wind might have to wait a while, but I'll definitely come back to it... sometime when I have four hours to spare... and some more of that gumbo.

Only five left! I can't believe it. How can you argue against any of them? Next up: the only lightness anywhere to be found until the end, it seems. Gene Kelly is soaked while he's Singin' in the Rain.

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