Monday, January 30, 2012

Gone With The Wind

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 6
Year: 1939
Writer: Sidney Howard
Director: Victor Fleming
Star: Vivien Leigh, Clark Cable, Olivia de Havilland

I’m guessing that when “Gone With the Wind” was released in 1939, its final act meant something completely different than what we take away from it today. Our views of women and feminism have been so altered in the decades since Scarlett O’Hara first declared she’d “never be hungry again,” and yet the film perseveres. The best art appeals to every new generation in its own way and, though the movie is deeply flawed, the great things about it make it timeless…even if what take out of it has changed so much.

Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is one of three daughters born and raised on Tara Plantation. Life there…well…it’s very high school, but with slaves (more on them later). Everyone is posturing, gossiping and gasping at the slightest hint of someone who is unafraid to let his or her real opinions be known. Scarlett is the loveliest belle in the area, and because she seems to be able to get any man she wants, all the women hate her and imply that she’s a whore. She doesn’t want just anyone, though. Scarlett is in love with the boring Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but alas he’s married to the genuinely kind Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Then there’s the handsome rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who sets his eyes on Scarlett as soon as he sees her.

Then the Civil War happens.

Suddenly all the delicate pleasantries of the South are met with harsh reality, and most of the women and men who so easily judged Scarlett die or fall completely apart. She doesn’t. Throughout the movie’s epic running time, she proves time and again how she will persevere no matter what you throw in her path. She’s got gumption. Spunk. And she’s probably my favorite character in all of film history.

One of the many things I love about “Gone With the Wind” is Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie, who is beloved by everyone who meets her. It’s delicate and could have drowned in easy melodrama, especially since Scarlett is in love with Melanie’s husband. But they really do become best friends. Melanie represents the sympathy and humanity Scarlett sometimes lacks in her “It’s all about me!” mentality, while Scarlett brings Melanie down to earth when she gets too precious for her own good. It is never explicitly stated, but they seem to sense an inherent strength and resilience in one another, and respect each other because of that. We think of Scarlett’s strong moments—driving that cart through occupied territory and the image of her shooting the Yankee soldier in the face…but it’s easy to forget that Melanie was in the back of that cart keeping a baby alive even though she could barely stay conscious herself because of the pain, or that she appeared at the top of the stairs seconds after the shooting with a sword in hand.

The movie is, of course, gigantic. It never gets bigger than the long, harrowing passages in Atlanta right before the Yankee troops arrived. That shot of Scarlett seeking out a doctor and wading through what appears to be the entire Confederate army, all dead or injured, remains one of the great images ever put on film. Of course, whatever else is going on in the world…the movie is all about how that affects its heroine. And, really, isn’t that how we are when we are young? Major, gigantic things are happening in the world, but what does that have to do with meeeee!?

Speaking of that pesky Civil War, the film’s inherent racist tendencies are still unsettling. During the main titles, cards sentimentalize the South as a time of “Master and Slave,” and almost all of the black characters (except for one who tries to murder Scarlett when she rides through a shanty town) are easily dominated and…well…dim. Big Sam’s introduction at the beginning of the movie has some horrendous dialogue, and poor Butterfly McQueen as the mentally handicapped Prissy has to screech the line “I don’t knows nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!” before getting slapped. The exception to this is Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), who is the brightest, most intelligent major character in the movie, even if her introduction yelling orders to Scarlett from an open window is pretty cringe-worthy. There are sweet moments, like when Scarlett gives her former slave Pork her father’s gold watch but, while I can understand downplaying the slavery issues because Scarlett genuinely doesn’t care about them, that doesn’t excuse breaking P.O.V. to show black characters acting like idiots simply to underline stereotypes.

The love triangle…er…square at the center of the film is really quite interesting. Scarlett “loves” Ashley, who may physically desire Scarlett (and like the fact that she’s after him incessantly), but she really loves Rhett. Rhett is in love with Scarlett but, as the film progresses, his bond with Melanie is built up to the point where we could realistically see a different version of the movie where he marries her and she “reforms” the rogue. Of course, Ashley is the most boring of the group, handsome but about as interesting as watching paint dry on a sunny day.

The performances here are really an embarrassment of riches. Leigh is perfect as Scarlett, simply perfect. You understand our frustration with her immaturity and yet cannot resist being swept away by her from the moment she is first introduced. It should also be noted it’s one hell of a lot of fun to see her do another variation on this southern belle character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Gable doesn’t seem to be acting, which I mean as a compliment. Likewise, de Havilland is so good at being sweet and loving that you forget you are watching a character and simply watching a real person. McDaniel is also great, and seeing her laugh and blush when she shows Rhett her petticoat brings a smile to my face every time I see the movie.

Earlier I wrote about how the final act means something different today than when it was first released. I’m assuming at the time, the character of Scarlett could only get away with so much before being demeaned and showed up by a man. She’s resilient but, seriously, they didn’t want to see her walking into a sunset after all the stuff she pulled. Today, Scarlett represents a survivor who is smart in unexpected ways but refuses to mature until life forces her to. The entirety of the movie is life pushing her down before she stands up again and refuses to be defeated and, for me, the final act represents this happening again, but the woman who emerges this time is just that: a woman, not a girl. As much as she loves Rhett, he really doesn’t deserve her, and is much more immature and fragile (after their daughter dies, Mammy observes that God gives Scarlett the strength to stand up, but the tragedy breaks Rhett almost completely). She doesn’t need him. And Melanie, on her deathbed, saw Scarlett as a woman she could truly trust with the fates of her husband and, most importantly, her son. Melanie’s goodness has rubbed off on Scarlett, and she didn’t even realize it. So she’s free of her husband, free of the obsession with Ashley which dragged her down so often, has enough money to do whatever she wants, and is finally ready to approach her life as an adult, whatever tomorrow brings.

I love “Gone With the Wind,” with all of its wonderful melodrama, lavish colors and smart characterization. Recently, I watched Steven Spielberg’s new film “War Horse” and smiled to myself when I saw that the final scene incorporated those same deep oranges and yellows that we see here in the skies Scarlett so often stares into. Several people at AFI reacted badly, saying that the colors and heightened emotions were “exactly what is wrong with Hollywood.” Why? Yes, we live in an era of cynicism, but what’s wrong with emotions and sentimentality if they are deeply felt and come from a real place? “Gone With the Wind” is a movie unafraid to feel, and its core emotions still ring true no matter what era we look at them from.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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