07 January 2010

1939: TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY

On December 15, 1939, a film premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. It was titled Gone with the Wind, and a more extraordinary example of all the vast lushness that Hollywood can buy had never been seen and never will again. That is the genius of the notorious producer-showman David O. Selznick, a man who made no small plans and who snapped up the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel for a record-setting $50,000 (the highest ever paid for an author's first book) almost as soon as it was published, before it had firmly entrenched itself as the popular read of the 1930s. The story gave him a huge palette to work with: war, romance, costumes, glamorous wealth and picturesque ruin. And as a man who knew more about how to give an audience all the lavish bang in the world than maybe any other individual in cinema history, Selznick was uniquely suited to overseeing the transformation of Mitchell's novel into the epic film that to this day stands as the benchmark against which all other epics are judged.

It's more than a little daunting to know where to begin with Gone with the Wind, not least because it remains the most-attended film in world history, and at a time when the world population was a great deal smaller than it is today (a fact which James Cameron, newly minted as the director of the two highest-grossing films ever made, might want to reflect upon somberly); but also because the movie is such a marvel of expense and scale that artistic considerations can't help but take a back seat to standing back and letting the very immensity of the film wash over one. Gone with the Wind is a big film, and then some: each of its halves could easily stand as a proper narrative feature on its own (and indeed, the structure feels as much like a film and its sequel as one overarching story), and for the great majority of people who ever watch it, I suppose this will always be the longest film they've ever seen, 224 minutes even before the 14 minutes of overture, intermission, entr'acte and exit music are added back in. It is a movie made with certain clumsiness, but a great deal more clumsiness would be permissible before it started to detract from the spectacle going on. The film's ad campaign shrieked out, "The Most Magnificent Picture Ever", which doesn't even feel like hyperbole: it's just a fact.

The making of Gone with the Wind has attracted as much legend as any other classic movie ever has, and it can become borderline-impossible to pick out exactly what happened with that year-long search for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara that somehow or another ended in the casting of Vivien Leigh, a minor British actress best known in 1938 as Laurence Olivier's lover, or exactly who directed what part of the film. It is commonly noted that the film has three directors: Victor Fleming, who was credited, George Cukor, and Sam Wood; that does not pay attention to the numerous unit directors, nor to William Cameron Menzies, who did somewhat more than is often included under the "unit direction" banner - he is probably the specific man who oversaw the show-stopping burning of Atlanta sequence - and who was rewarded for his efforts with the first credit for "Production designed by" in Hollywood history. At any rate, we don't really know what amount of the finished film was overseen by Cukor in the three weeks he worked on the project (his passing was greatly mourned by Leigh, and co-star Olivia de Havilland), before he was removed for reasons that are still unclear: myth has it that Clark Gable, who was already less than enthusiastic about working on what he considered to the end of his days as a "women's picture" didn't particularly enjoy working under the homosexual "women's director", and demanded that he be replaced by the more rugged, masculine Fleming, with whom Gable had worked thrice before; the truth of the matter is probably that Cukor and Selznick didn't see eye-to-eye, which would not be the first time that a director with an actual personality clashed with the producer's autocratic style, nor the last - the very next year, Selznick would begin a years-long clash with the prickly British auteur Alfred Hitchcock, over Rebecca. At any rate, Fleming was snatched away from The Wizard of Oz, leaving King Vidor to see that picture through to completion. Boy, the 1930s were a weird time.

There's also the matter of the film's incredibly large number of writers, with Sidney Howard taking ultimate, posthumous credit, although at least four other people contributed either lines or whole scenes, and the whole structure of the piece is generally assumed to be Selznick's doing; and its three cinematographers, beginning with Lee Garmes, fired after a month to be replaced by Ernest Haller, with Ray Rennahan hanging on throughout as the film's Technicolor supervisor. With all that fluctuating talent, you'd assume that Gone with the Wind would be a hodge-podge of different styles and perspectives, and you'd mostly be right. But you'd also be mostly wrong. Because even if the differences between, say, the opening sequence, with its medium close-ups and soft lighting (definitely not Cukor, and Haller on camera), and the dramatic rape/seduction scene in the last hour, a matter of virtually expressionistic blacks and reds and harsh wide shots taken from unusual angles (God only knows - my guess is Fleming directed, and if he did it's the most atypical sequence he was ever responsible for), is a tremendously obvious difference to anyone with eyes, and the good memory to compare footage separated by a solid 150 minutes of Southern melodrama, at the same time the gradual transition from one state to the other is motivated largely by the drift of the story itself, so even though the film covers a fairly insane amount of ground, visually, it never presents clashing styles in direct juxtaposition.

Ultimately, the only man responsible for making Gone with the Wind look and talk like Gone with the Wind is Selznick himself; and if the film is a pure nightmare for us auteurists, at least you can plainly tell that it has a guiding mentality, even if his guidance was largely a matter of "make moments as over-the-top glitzy as you can". Even its most emotionally true moments are stunningly overwrought: the shot of Scarlett, in a a tawdry, gorgeous red dress (insisted upon by Fleming), standing in fiery isolation as cross-cut with the gaggle of plain "proper" women who like to gossip about her; or the repeating motif of Scarlett in silhouette, standing with her back to us, looking into the sunset (the only argument you'll ever need to prove that Technicolor is the best thing in the history of motion pictures); or the film's crowning moment, a truly unfathomable crane shot over the bodies of hundreds of extras, a dead field that stars in a medium shot of Scarlett and tracks back and back and up and up until we can just barely pick her out among the casualties, before she finally disappears behind a tattered Confederate flag (this magnificent shot was proposed by Val Lewton, later the famous producer of RKO's brilliant horror movie B-unit in the 1940s). The only thing that Gone with the Wind ever needs to do, it does: present imagery that is gorgeous, and present it with conviction. The mere fact that Fleming and Wood weren't terribly gifted directors can't stand in the way of Selznick's money.

All this talk of the film's epic scale: what about its epic scope? It tracks the outline of Mitchell's best-selling novel rather closely: beginning about a month after the secessionist Southern army fired upon Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April, 1861, just before the start of open warfare between the Union and the Confederacy, it follows to the end of the American Civil War in 1865, and on to the end of the decade, in the throes of Reconstruction. Largely, it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler, a young woman of a wealthy cotton-farming family who is in love with the son of the neighboring plantation, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), and the agonies that befall her when Ashley marries his cousin Melanie Hamilton (de Havilland), right before the opulent, shallow life of leisure that was The Old South evaporated for once and all.

The book was in no small part an epic-sized metaphor: Scarlett, a dogged and determined woman who broke every rule of morality and social niceness to ensure her survival was played as an extension of the South itself, struggling to keep itself alive, and to cling to the traditions that had served it for generations. It is also staggeringly wrongheaded: a paean to the Peculiar Institution and tribute to a lost society that, despite the nostalgia of the very specific people that enjoyed its benefits, is unquestionably better of lost. It is the kind of book in which the Ku Klux Klan is brought in for some measure of praise - not to the extent of The Birth of a Nation, but any level of praise for the KKK is, I hope we can all agree, too much praise.

This element of the book was sanitised considerably for the film, at Selznick's particular request, and while it is still often said and rightly that Gone with the Wind is a racist movie, and a movie that pays tribute to a culture which (raised on the backs of slaves) has no business receiving tribute, it is the very model of progressive liberalism in comparison to the rather nasty-minded source material. We can and absolutely should point to the extreme poverty of characterisation granted to the African-American figures in the story, even as Hattie McDaniels's turn as Mammy is one of the finest and subtlest performances in the film (famously, she was the first minority actor to win an Academy Award); certainly, the hellish character of Prissy (played Butterfly McQueen, who often spoke against the character, though never the film itself), who don't know nothing 'bout birthin' babies, is one of the most desperately unfortunate representations of a minority character in American sound cinema. I would never want to forgive Gone with the Wind its sins in this regard, although in the end, the film is so much more about the melodramatic love quadrangle (especially relative to the book), that I can't bring myself to throw out on otherwise effective movie because of its unacceptable, even for 1939, racism.

Because dammit, the melodrama works. This was also considerably sanitised; the movie might be famous for its saucy use of the word "damn", but the book was altogether smutty in passages. And much of that, like the full characterisation of madam Belle Watling (Ona Munson) or the explicitly sexual nature of Ashley's affection for Scarlett, is left out of the movie entirely.

What the movie has to make up for all of that is Vivien Leigh, who makes Scarlett one of the most vivid, living characters in all of motion pictures, perhaps the best performance ever to win an Oscar. When I am not watching the movie, and bathing in its rampant opulence, but only recalling it from a distance, it's always Leigh's acting that I recall: she fully commands every scene she is in and most of the ones she's not in, letting all the torrid emotion of the story play across her nervous eyes set in a chiseled marble face. We are not supposed to like Scarlett; she is a wicked woman who violates all the nice rules that nice people set up for nice society, all out of a selfish love of money and another woman's husband. But I can't help myself from adoring her completely, not only because most of the people she stands opposed to are morally bankrupt ex-slave owners, but because Leigh demands my adoration. Her Scarlett is a strong, unflinching figure who knows that the world will not do her any favors, and fuck the world because of it; a modern woman in a film made when modern women were looked at askance, set in a time when modern women were as the devil himself, but it's exactly that take-no-prisoners, to hell with propriety attitude that makes her so exquisitely appealing; and that's all Leigh. On the page, she's just a bitch. The resolve and the strength and the intelligence, all those come from the performance, and even as Leigh also mixes all those virtues with incredible blindness and childlike greediness, I can't love her character any less.

And it is because Leigh's performance is so magnetic that the drama of the film is so moving: a woman who spends her life wanting something she can't have, realising that she doesn't want it just too late to hold on to what she does have. Without that elegant, tragic core, Gone with the Wind would still be a visual spectacle like none other, but thanks to the Passion of Scarlett O'Hara, done to melodramatic perfection, the film instead becomes a classic: stylistically uneven and morally ugly it may be, with a second half that's nowhere near as thrilling as the first, but it has a stunning protagonist to go along with its visual wonders, and for that reason as much as any, Gone with the Wind is and will always be the Ultimate Hollywood Movie.

6 comments:

Rick said...

I had the chance to watch Gone With the Wind as part of the Plaza Theater Classic Film Festival, and even seventy years later, the audience was still in thrall of this film. I've called it The Rose Bowl of Epic Films...The Granddaddy of 'Em All. I agree: as I wrote of the film, the portrayal of slavery is so genteel one wonders what all the fighting was about. However, if I want authenticity about American slavery, I go to Roots. If I want a fantasy about "moonlight & magnolias" I go here. It IS grand, it IS lavish, but I know of no other film where audiences applaud when one of the main characters appears and just looks at you (that would be Clark Gable). Finally, as for Leigh--what a damn Great Performance! Her tenacity, her stubbornness, her longing for something she doesn't have and really doesn't need...how could anyone resist? For my part, it is still one of the greats.

Meg said...

I have been told that my spot-on mimicry of Prissy's "I don't know nothin bout birthing no babies!" shrieking is sending me to tell. And indeed, when watching this movie when I was older than 10, I couldn't believe that this was actually acceptable.

Ahhh, but it's difficult not to feel fondness for the movie, despite the fact that it's, as you said, glorifying a culture that has absolutely no business being glorified. Though now whenever I see Vivien Leigh, all I can think about is how Laurence Olivier, apparently, would wear carnations in his underwear during performances and then send them to her.

Fun facts to know and tell.

javi75 said...

Nothing I can add about this movie.
But you have my unasked for vote, for continuing this series, you know, now with some stand-out movie released on January 1940, and so on. It's nice to read the review of an old film at least once a month.

Rick said...

1940: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Rebecca ...not a bad year.

Tim said...

If I did a year-in-review, I'd be inclined not to go with 1940... something to ponder, anyway, once my Top 100 of the '00s is done later this month. And fear not, there are classic reviews in the offing.

Samuel Wilson said...

I've always wondered whether one scene in Wind is actually a progressive racial moment. When Big Sam rescues Scarlett on the bridge, if I recall right, he is slugging white men. If I'm right, is that some sort of Hollywood first, either for the physical contact of its positive portrayal? Thanks to anyone who can clarify this.