A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1939, we have Gone With the Wind.
Early in Gone With the Wind there’s a shot of a big mass of southern belles napping as they’re fanned by slave girls. It’s a ridiculously extravagant scene - everything in this movie is ridiculously extravagant - but it illustrates the problem with the old south, a culture that is recalled with nostalgia in the narration. The people in Confederate states were all children, protected from the realities of adulthood by pressing an entire race of people into servitude. The idea of an entire party having a nice nap time is borrowed from kindergarten, and the people were clearly kept far away from any actual work.
One can argue that this isn’t the reading of Gone With the Wind that the filmmakers intended, but I’m not so sure. The cast in the early part of the film is made up of really young boys - Rand Brooks, who plays Charlie Hamilton, Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) first husband, looks like a baby with his big eyes and soft features. Everyone’s playing at war and insisting they can totally win and keep their slaves and be the best ever, and when visiting stranger Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) points out that they don’t actually have the resources to win a war, the boys all protest that they’re the best and the Yankees are not, so they will win, a child’s logic. The only consistently adult character is Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, who won an Oscar for her role as the all around maternal figure. The south is depicted as an idyllic, unspoiled paradise. The Civil War ruins it because it made reality crash into Georgia.
The Civil War is only important here because of how it shapes O’Hara, however, whose journey from naive waif to hard-hearted business woman is the real center of the film. An entire war was fought and a nation divided in order to facilitate her journey. In the periphery is Butler, who exists mostly to provide a reality check to an entire nation who has lived in blissful rejection of reality, and O’Hara in particular. O’Hara spends most of her time pining after a man (Ashley Wilkes, played by Leslie Howard) who will never love her, while marrying men who she will never love - the first of which dies almost immediately after their wedding. Eventually she marries Butler, of course, but at the risk of spoiling something made before the second world war, that also goes quite badly.
If the appeal of this movie is how it looks, I understand entirely. This is nearly four hours of absolutely beautiful colour photography. The costumes are stunning, the sets spectacular, a crane shot showing a street filled with wounded soldiers stands among the best shots ever filmed. This movie is, top to bottom, gorgeous. That Leigh can command the screen through all of this is a testament to her star power, she even holds attention in the midst of that spectacular crane shot. This movie does more to give the Confederate south a mythical power just because it is shot so well, it looks like paradise.
If the appeal is the love story, I don’t think it’s a very good one. O’Hara and Butler aren’t particularly sympathetic leads and their story just serves to make them out as self-centered. It’s understandable in the case of O’Hara - it’s a reaction to poverty, famously rendered in the “I’ll never go hungry again” scene immediately before the intermission - but it doesn’t make their love seem all that grand in the end. They’re hard-headed fools who deserve each other and deserve to lose each other, nothing more. The actors are appealing and charismatic enough, and the script drifts so closely to being about sex without actually mentioning sex, that it’s not the love story but the lust of it all that provides the appeal. Never mind the actions of the characters, people were willing to watch a four hour movie to see these two kiss.
The rest of the characters aren’t nearly as fully realized, Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie, Ashley Wilkes’ wife and cousin, is pretty much a saint and everyone else is forgettable, there were actors who were in the entire film who I kept thinking were new because they left so small an impression last time they were on screen, and the movie is so long, it’s possible to just forget that they’re there.
It’s too long, it is nearly four hours, and it’s difficult to make a movie work for that length of running time. The issue is that it feels like the movie just keeps going long after the plot has ceased to be interesting. The length is a result of its unique narrative structure, which is constantly teasing at a happy ending before snatching it away, eventually leading to an ending that’s not really an ending at all, suggesting this will be the structure of O’Hara’s life forever - getting within spitting distance of a happy ending before ruining it for herself. The actual ending, which involves many unexpected deaths, is some fantastically overwrought melodrama.
As a film nostalgic about the American south, it naturally has a few race issues. The happy-go-lucky slave trope has always felt like a naive way to justify literally owning people, and it’s in evidence here - the worst example being a wacky scene where a slave tries to catch a chicken to feed the white folks. It’s not so bad that it’s unwatchable to a modern audience, but it’s also trying to say that being a black person in the south wasn’t that bad, which is hard to say when you literally owned someone. Yet it does, at one point, make a very quick reference to the south replacing slavery with convict labor - O’Hara staffs a mill with convicts because they’re cheap, leading to a debate with Ashley about the morals of it - so it’s not completely sweeping the problems of the south under the rug, even though it minimizes them.
This was made as an important movie, something obvious in every frame, and it does feel like an important movie. The length, the expense, the scale, it’s clear that producer David O. Selznick intended this to be what he would be remembered for, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s a movie worth watching once just to see it, the famous scenes, the pure extravagance of it all. It’s the peak of Hollywood ambition and that’s why it’s so memorable. I also expect that even fans don’t watch the entire four hours every time they watch it.
Next time, it’s 1940 and we take a Night Train to Munich.