The biggest criticism of Gone with the Wind has always been that it is just a glorified, four hour long soap opera; and it is. Major plot points in the movie include a woman who sleeps around with other men if it serves her purpose (the movie calls it “getting married” but we know what they really mean), jealous lovers who just so happen to walk in on married men in the hands of women not their wives and there is the implied rape by a husband of his wife who refuses to have another baby because of (gasp!) what it will do to her waistline. A soap opera yes, but such a giant, glorious, dazzling and brilliant soap opera that we are willing to forgive it.
Gone with the Wind is the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a free-spirited southern woman who pursues the love of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and refuses to let any obstacle (war, famine, hunger, etc.) get in her way. At the beginning of the film, much of the cast is assembled at Twelve Oaks, the plantation owned by the Wilkes family, for a barbeque and ball. Scarlett has the attention of every beau at the party, except for Ashley, whom she just learned is getting married to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). When she finally gets Ashley alone to express her love for him, he tells her that although he cares about her very much, it would never work for them to be married. Overhearing this conversation is Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), whom we know right off is the right man for Scarlett.
However, Scarlett’s love for Ashley will always get in the way of our two lovers and when the Civil War starts, Scarlett accepts the wedding proposal of Melanie’s brother Charles who, for the purposes of the story, is one of the first men killed in battle. During the war, Scarlett lives with Melanie and works with her in the hospital, not necessarily because she wants to help, but because she wants to be around when Ashley comes home.
In the meantime a relationship continues to develop between her and Rhett and when it comes time for her to flee Atlanta and go home to her family’s plantation, Rhett is there to help her. But guilt gets the best of Rhett, who leaves them to help the Confederate army make one last stand. But not before getting one big goodbye kiss from Scarlett, whether she wants it or not.
When Scarlett returns home to her family’s plantation Tara, she finds that her mother has died, her father has gone nutty, her two sisters are sick and the Yankees have taken everything that was not nailed down. She makes a vow that “they are not going to lick me” and the movie cuts to intermission with one of the most impressive shots in the history of cinema; Scarlett alone on a hilltop, fist above in the painted air, framed under that great tree. This is a repeated shot in the film. We first get it when Scarlett’s father (Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar this year, but not for this film) is telling her that land is the only thing that matters, again just before intermission and finally at the very end of the film, once Scarlett has finally realized (we hope) that land is the only thing that matters.
I was aiming to keep the plot summary short, but so much happens in this 238 minute epic that it is next to impossible to do; and that was just the first half of the film.
The film is based on the popular novel by Margaret Mitchell and it tells a story of the Civil War from a very subjective southern point-of-view. Mitchell was a southerner, as was mega-producer David O. Selznick and the movie worries more about the Georgia peaches getting blisters on their hands than it does the issue of slavery. In fact, with the exception of the family’s servants—who seem more than content to maintain their current status—many of the black characters in the film are perceived as fools or enemies. Take for instance just after Scarlett has visited Rhett in the “horse jail.” She walks past a group of freed slaves who are told they each get forty acres and a mule. “A mule? Geee,” says one of the men with a voice that could have doubled for Goofy.
Gone with the Wind is one of the most extraordinary films to look at. You could probably watch the movie with the sound off and still understand its greatness. It was made in 1939, when color was still a new concept in Hollywood and it takes full advantage of the new Technicolor process. They may not have been the first films to use color, but Wind and fellow 1939 release The Wizard of Oz were the first two films to show just how effective the new technique could be and how much it could add to the story.
There are many shots in Gone with the Wind—the shot on the hilltop, Rhett and Scarlett escaping a burning Atlanta, Scarlett “sending a soldier off to battle with a beautiful memory”—that could be framed and adorn the walls of art museums. The images in this film are truly breathtaking, even if you have to stretch your imagination a little bit to believe them (the shadows of Scarlett and Melanie on the wall in the hospital don’t match them at all). The film was made before the widescreen process was used and one can only imagine what it would have looked like on a panoramic screen.
Every bit as memorable as the images in Gone with the Wind are the legendary performances of its actors. Scarlett O’Hara—perhaps the greatest female character ever created—was the big thing in 1930s Hollywood. The search for the perfect actress for the role was ten, maybe even one hundred times bigger than the recent search for Anakin Skywalker. All of the top actresses in Hollywood wanted it, but in the end—just as shooting was starting—Selznick went with little known British actress Vivien Leigh, and the rest is history. Leigh did not star in a huge number of movies in her career, but in those few she created not only one but two of the most memorable female characters in movie history; first as Scarlett O’Hara and second as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She won Oscars for both performances.
The role of Rhett Butler seemed tailor-made for a movie star and Clark Gable fit that bill perfectly. Amazingly, Gable did not win an Oscar for his performance. As Mammy, however, Hattie McDaniel did win an Oscar for best supporting actress, the first acting Oscar to be awarded to an African-American actor. Also delivering performances that will forever be etched in our memory are Leslie Howard as Scarlett’s ideal beau Ashley Wilkes and Olivia de Havilland as his perfect—sometimes nauseatingly too perfect—wife Melanie.
Gone with the Wind is pure melodrama and much of the film can certainly come off as a bit too corny for those of us raised in the more cynical last part of the 20th Century. For instance, I never thought I would see two people running towards each other with arms wide open—as when Ashley returns from the war to Melanie—in a movie as something other than parody. Despite the corniness, however, Gone with the Wind remains a classic for all-time thanks to its elaborately brilliant production values and it paved the way for the many elaborately epic melodramas that followed it (Titanic, Pearl Harbor).
So what if it is just a glorified soap opera? “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It’s a definite classic, it gets an A+.