Gone with the Wind (1939) Director: Victor Fleming
The film is based on the 1936 celebrated and controversial sole novel written by Margaret Mitchell, a southern woman who grew up hearing stories of the “old south” in all its graces and vices from her grandmother. The novel was told in five parts, while the film condensed the story into two parts. The novel was mostly written in the late 1920s, curiously while Mitchell was obsessively reading erotica fiction.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”
Gone with the Wind is a tale of nostalgia for a time that has literally “gone with the wind.” The title is in reference to the English poet, Ernest Dowson, from his poem of lament entitled: “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae.” In the context of the poem, the phrase refers to the poet’s loss of passion, eroticism, and love for a former lover. The story is told from the perspective of the aristocracy of the old south, before, during, and after the Civil War. We see glimpses of the south: the Frenchmen in their gaiety and fashionable garb, the Englishmen in their regal gentlemanliness, and the Irishmen (like the O’Hara family), farmers and regularly condescended to. It opens during a sweet and peaceful scene of an afternoon at Tara, a cotton plantation outside Atlanta, Georgia. The southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, is in love with Ashley Wilkes. At a garden party at a nearby plantation, Twelve Oaks, Ashley is set to announce his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, so Scarlett professes her love to him in the library, but he cannot reciprocate as their personalities are too different. She gets angry at him and he leaves the room, and suddenly Rhett Butler, a rogueish and independent man, has been hiding the whole time. He praises her lack of grace, but she yells at him ‘you aren’t fit to wipe his boots!’ Scarlett storms out to learn that war has been declared and all the men are excited to enlist in the army. Rhett Butler believes the war is a lost cause. In an act of defiance, she agrees to marry Charles Hamilton, cousin of Ashley Wilkes. He dies of a disease several weeks into the war (in the book it is pneumonia followed by the measles, and also in the book Scarlett gives birth to their child, as well, though this part is absent from the film). Scarlett becomes a lady in mourning. She goes to live with Melanie in Atlanta where they are involved in the war effort. One night, she encounters Rhett Butler again at a Confederate charity benefit. He has become a blockade runner (running supplies in disguise through blockade lines). At Christmas, Ashley is allowed to return home briefly, and Melanie becomes pregnant. Soon, the war effort turns worse and Atlanta is assaulted on all sides. Injured Confederate soldiers overwhelm the city, and Scarlett must help Melanie deliver her baby without help, while the city is being lit afire by the Confederate unwilling to give over their supplies and ammunition to the Union army. In the chaos, Scarlett finds Rhett and begs him to take them back to Tara, her family’s home. He laughs at the idea, but steals an old horse and carriage and they flee the city just as anarchy begins to ensue. Rhett leaves them, as he returns to the war effort, greatly disappointing Scarlett. She finds that Tara has been left in tatters. The Union army robbed and burned the old buildings, all the cotton in the fields is destroyed, the slaves have mostly left. In the moonlight their old house still stands. She enters to find her father, delusional, with her sick sisters and her mother has died. All that is left of the family’s wealth was tied up in Confederate bonds. They are living on the brink of starvation. She walks out into the fields at sunset and finds an old carrot that she eats and she defiantly screams out:
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me! I’m going to live through this, and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again – no, nor any of my folks! If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill! As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
In Part II, Scarlett runs the plantation with her family, picking cotton and growing food, all the while they are under ever-present danger. Confederate troops, demoralized, keep marching southward in retreat and Union troops, under General Sherman, are leaving a wake of utter destruction through Georgia. One day, a Union deserter breaks into their house and Scarlett kills him with Rhett’s pistol. Melanie was also prepared to attack him with a sword. In desperate need of money to pay the high taxes demanded by the Union men, Scarlett goes to Rhett for the money, but is imprisoned in Atlanta and refuses to give any money. Then, she goes to an old acquaintance, Frank Kennedy, who has money running a general store. She hatches a plan and marries him to pay off the taxes on Tara. In a scandalous, unladylike way, she begins running the business and expanding it to secure solid income by opening a new mill (a time period which is spelled out in greater detail in the book/ Also in the book Scarlett becomes pregnant by Frank, as well). On one of her trips out to the mill, she is attacked by vagrants in the woods, but she is saved at the last moment by “Big Sam,” one of the former slaves of Tara. In retaliation, several men, including Ashley, Rhett Butler, and her husband, Frank Kennedy, go to exact vengeance and clean out the woods. However, Georgia is under martial law and the soldiers keep a close watch over the household. The men return late under the guise of drunkenness and Frank Kennedy has been shot. Again, Scarlett goes in mourning.
Vivien Leigh was chosen out of a casting group of 1,400+ to play Scarlett. Clark Gable was always favored to play the counterpart to Scarlett in the film (in fact production was held up so he could be in the film). Oddly enough, Clark Gable lost the award for Best Actor to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. However, Gone with the Wind swept the Academy Awards in almost all other major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Leigh) and others (a record of ten awards until Ben-Hur won eleven in 1959).
I would be remiss not to mention the unfortunate portrayal of Black Americans in the film –they are portrayed as happy slaves who serve as comic relief and ancillary to the larger story. Hattie McDaniel won a notable Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, however she was still forbidden from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta in 1939 due to segregation rules. Like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind has spawned much protest, both then and now.
Vivien Leigh was best known for this role and her later role as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. She was a British Actress (her southern accent was feeble at best) and she got her rise in Shakespearean productions. She was married to her second husband Laurence Olivier from 1940-1960. She was reportedly difficult to work with and struggled with bipolar disorder among other health ailments. Tuberculosis eventually claimed her life at age 53 in 1967.
Clark Gable – the “King of Hollywood” who starred alongside many of the greats throughout the 1930s 1940s and 1950s. He was a conservative Republican, though kept his politics mostly silent. He was married five times and died at the age of 59 in 1960 in Los Angeles.
Leslie Howard – played Ashley in the film, the role for which he is best remembered. Like Leigh he was an English actor, and he was something of a womanizer. He tragically died in a plane crash over Europe in 1943.
Olivia de Havilland – played the role of Melanie Hamilton, the noble wife of Ashley. Like others in the film she was a British actress, born in 1916. Remarkably, as of the time of this writing, she is still alive, one of the oldest living survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She has lived in Paris since the 1950s.
Like the Wizard of Oz, the film was shot in three strip technicolor. Also like the Wizard of Oz, the film had multiple directors, including both Fleming and Cukor. David O. Slznik produced the picture. It was released shortly after the outbreak of WWII in Europe, and as such audiences identified with its themes of nostalgia for simpler times and survival during times of war. Max Steiner completed the incredible score for the film.
Gone with the Wind is often considered the great box-office champion of all time and with good reason. 1939 was certainly Victor Fleming’s year – maintaining the roles of lead Director on both The Wizard of Oz, as well as Gone with the Wind. The film is an epic of old Hollywood, containing within it a simple story that is lengthy and complex at times, addressing issues of nostalgia, longing for a place to call home, ill-fated love, as well as the erotic detachment and emasculation of a people that becomes so brutally destroyed, as Georgia was in the wake of General Sherman’s march. Where is home when your family, country, home, and love is all destroyed? Scarlett finds this home in the dirt and soil of her family’s land. It is a beautifully tragic, yet heroic and controversial tale presented in the romantic way possible at the heights of old Hollywood.