Almost four years ago, on November 17th, the 70th Anniversary Edition of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) was released in a special 5-disc boxed set. While a Hollywood classic, GWTW is not for everyone.
GWTW is not for you if:
1) you think a movie must be as historically accurate as a history book;
2) you think a 1939 movie should reflect the values of the 21st century;
3) your attention span doesn't allow you to watch movies longer than two hours;
4) you can only accept politically correct films, particularly in terms of racial issues;
5) you can only accept special effects as they appear in (computerized) modern films;
6) your idea of great acting is to be found only in the slasher or teen films being made today.
Some find GWTW a ridiculously overblown, exaggerated re-telling of the Old South. To others, Scarlett O'Hara is nothing more than a spoiled brat who never really grows up; or, by the time she shows a glimmer of doing so, it's too late.
What one should keep in mind when watching GONE WITH THE WIND: it is not a documentary. Despite the obsessive care producer David O. Selznick lavished on historical accuracy as to the "look" of the period--the clothes, the interiors--the movie is not reality, but rather an historical romance set against the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, a war in which at least 618,000 Americans died. (Some experts say the toll reached 700,000. The number that is most often quoted is 620,000. At any rate, these casualties exceed the nation's total loss in all its other wars, from the Revolution through Vietnam.)
GWTW is a great--perhaps THE great--Hollywood example of the power of film: although battle scenes are never actually shown, the results of the war--the devastation, disease and death--are so powerfully depicted that people swear they "remember" seeing bloody combat in the movie.
WITH ONE LOOK: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, at the Atlanta church-turned-charnel house of diseased, dying and dead soldiers. With one reaction shot(see below)--her revulsion at a soldier's screams as his leg is amputated, without anesthesia--Vivien Leigh conveys the horrors--and the (never shown) bloody battles--of war.
This power of film is perhaps why GWTW comes in for different criticisms. The movie is so real in its physical aspects--its "look"--that it is criticized for not being (historically) accurate in others. But, again, the movie is not a documentary. It is a m-o-v-i-e based on a novel; i.e. fiction.
Not only is GWTW not a documentary on the Civil War period, it is not a history of slavery in America. It was criticized--as was the novel--for its treatment of blacks. But upon an objective viewing of the movie today, it is quite often the slaves--Mammy, Pork, Big Sam--who are the only characters with any sense. Of course, GONE WITH THE WIND, with its happy plantation slaves posed against bleeding robin's breast sunsets, has its enraging and embarrassing moments; the racist depiction is, regrettably, part of the nation's collective past.
Caption: Hattie McDaniel as Mammy explaining to Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) that Rhett has locked himself in the room with his daughter Bonnie's corpse and has threatened to kill Scarlett if she buries the child.
If this scene alone doesn't rip your heart out--largely due to McDaniel's performance--then pick up the phone and call the undertaker because you are most assuredly dead.
Taken as cultural artifact of an earlier period of American movie-making, one has to look at it as anthropology tells us we must look at cultures not our own. That is, just as we must "judge" a culture on its own terms, we must look at a 70-year-old movie in terms of the times in which it was produced.
Finally, GONE WITH THE WIND is an adaptation of a novel written by a Southern woman who, as a child, sat and listened to the stories the old Confederate veterans told about the old days before, during, and after The War. It is a love story, inspired in part by the novelist's grandmother, reflecting the attitudes left over from that long-ago time.
Taken on its own terms, it remains the prototype of the Hollywood epic film. It achieved many firsts. Today, it remains--in terms of tickets sold--the all-time box office champ.
---Hoyt Harris, Lafayette, LAGone with the Wind (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition)Victor Fleming: An American Movie MasterFrankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited (Icons of America)
Gone with the wind, the screenplay by Sidney Howard; based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell
***Vivien Leigh: A BiographyDavid O. Selznick's Hollywood
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Two years after announcing he would bring "Gone with the Wind" to the screen, producer David. O. Selznick--after paying the publisher MacMillan a record sum for the rights--still did not have a script. He was still a couple of months away from getting MGM to loan Clark Gable in return for world distribution rights and half the film's box office.
Despite a phenomenally costly, two-year, nationwide search for an actress---amateur or professional--to play the tempestuous, spoiled and fickle Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara, Selznick still didn't have his Scarlett, either. (In all, 1,400 hopefuls were interviewed, 90 given screen tests, and exactly one actually cast, in a minor role. Also considered: Katharine Hepburn (who lobbied for the part), Bette Davis, and even RKO Studio's loony suggestion of Lucille Ball. Charlie Chaplin's companion, Paulette Goddard, seemed to have the role locked up, but a massive letter campaign spearheaded by the Florida chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy torpedoed it.)
With or without a Scarlett, construction crews needed to get cracking on building sets for Selznick's epic--what many doomsayers were already calling "Selznick's folly." To make room for construction of a two-mile long re-creation of Old Atlanta, the back lot of Selznick International Pictures had to be cleared of old movie sets.
Someone came up with the idea of burning the remnants of the set of KING KONG (1933) and filming it as the "burning of Atlanta," one of the great visual sequences in all of film.
Just as Life itself so often does, it came down to one shot. There could be no retakes.
Without a script, without stars for the two principal characters, on the night of December 10, 1938, the shooting of GONE WITH THE WIND finally began--stunt doubles for Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler escaping the inferno on buckboard as Los Angeles firemen aimed their hoses at the raining embers. (The fire on the Culver City back lot--fed by an elaborate system of pipes pumping oil and water through the sets so that the fire could be raised or lowered at will--was huge and intense. Its red glow was so ominous on low-hanging clouds on this chilly December night that hundreds of L.A. residents called the fire department, wanting to know if MGM was on fire.)
Because there could be no retakes, the lenses of every available Technicolor camera (there were no more than a dozen in existence) were trained on the one-chance, make-or-break scene. As the sets went up in flames, Selznick's brother, the agent Myron Selznick, brought a lovely British actress onto the scaffolding, a perch from which "General" David Selznick was watching the inferno.
David looked into the eyes of this exquisite, dark-haired, green-eyed beauty.
A British actress little known in the United States at that time, Vivien Leigh-- who had made her first stage appearance at the age of three, reciting "Little Bo Peep"--was 26.
But Vivien Leigh's entrance was no accident. She had come to Hollywood from England ostensibly to be with her lover Laurence Olivier, one of Myron's clients, whom she would marry a year and a half later when his divorce--and hers--became final.
But Vivien Leigh had also come to Hollywood to pursue the part of Scarlett.
Both Selznicks already knew of Leigh. But it wasn't until this night--with the crimson glow of the burning movie set illuminating her face--that David O. Selznick first laid eyes on Vivien Leigh.
Leigh reportedly auditioned for then-director George Cukor that very night. A week and a half later, on December 21 and December 22, her screen tests were made. Legend has it that George Cukor called her three days later on Christmas Day to tell her she had the part. She signed her contract on January 16, 1939. Principal photography began on January 26.
The opening scene of "Gone With The Wind," in which the Tarleton Twins are talking to Scarlett about the war, was one of the most troubled scenes of the film. It was shot a total of five times. The first time was on Thursday, January 26, 1939. Selznick was not satisfied with this take because the Twins's hair, dyed red for the film, appeared "too orange" in Technicolor. The scene was shot again on Monday, January 30, but was not used because of the lighting. When George Cukor left the production, Victor Fleming took over; his first scene, shot on Wednesday, March 1, was the porch scene. But Selznick was not happy with the Twins' performances so the take was not used. Fleming shot the scene again on Monday, June 26. This take was not used because Vivien Leigh looked "exhausted." She took a vacation before returning to shoot the scene a final time on Thursday, October 12, 1939. It was the last scene shot with Vivien Leigh and is the version that appears in the final film.
So, in the finished film, Vivien Leigh is almost nine months older at the beginning of the movie than she is at the end of the movie.
Now, let's fast-forward thirteen months.
January 29, 1940-- Los Angeles--Ambassador Hotel's Coconut Grove.
It's Oscar night in Hollywood. With comedian Bob Hope emceeing, the Oscar ceremony is underway. One after another, the gold-plated statuettes--gold-plated, 92 percent tin now, but gold-plated solid bronze on this night--are showered on GONE WITH THE WIND. It won't be a "clean sweep," but the movie will set a record for most Oscars won.
--William Cameron Menzies for his use of color.
--Hal Kern and James Newcom for film editing.
--Ernest Haller and Ray Renahan for color cinema photography.
--Lyle Wheeler for art direction.
Acclaimed author Sinclair Lewis announces the Academy Award for best screen adaptation: a posthumous Oscar (the first such Oscar ever given) to writer Sidney Howard.
(A lover of the quiet rural life, Howard had died five months earlier while working on his 700-acre farm in Tyringham, Massachusetts. The screenwriter was crushed to death in a garage by his two-and-a-half ton tractor. He had turned the ignition switch on and was cranking the engine to start it when it lurched forward, pinning him against the wall of the garage. Apparently an employee had left the transmission in high gear. Sidney Howard died less than four months before the movie he scripted had premiered. He never saw the movie that he had written--with the help of many others, including his micromanaging, obsessed producer.)
Mervyn LeRoy, who produced THE WIZARD OF OZ this same year, steps to the podium to present the next Academy Award.
--Best direction to Victor Fleming--who had simultaneously directed OZ--for GONE WITH THE WIND.
All Oscar nights since the first one in 1928 had been glamorous ones. But this night was special. It represented what history would soon realize was the zenith, the high-water mark of the studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the twelve months of 1939, more now-classic films were produced than in any year-- before or since.
In addition to GONE WITH THE WIND, 1939 saw production of the following movies:
* Edmund Goulding's DARK VICTORY (with three nominations and no wins) about a young heiress who is slowly dying of a brain tumor and ultimately accepts her death in noble fashion
* Director Sam Wood's GOODBY MR CHIPS (with seven nominations and one win - Best Actor), a version of James Hilton's novel about a beloved Latin teacher/schoolmaster at an English public school (the Brookfield School for Boys)
* Director Leo McCarey's tearjerker LOVE AFFAIR (with five nominations and no wins) - that he later remade as AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957) - about two lovers who promise to meet atop the Empire State Building
* Director Ernst Lubitsch's delightful romantic comedy NINOTCHKA (with four nominations and no wins) about a cold Soviet official sent to Paris
* Director Lewis Milestone's adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck tragedy "Of Mice and Men" (with five nominations and no wins)
* Director John Ford's version of Ernest Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg", STAGECOACH (with seven nominations and two wins - Best Supporting Actor and Best Score) - the director's first film with star John Wayne - about a stagecoach journey by a varied group of characters
* Director Victor Fleming's perennial favorite - the beloved fantasy film about a Kansas farm girl who journeys to a brightly colored world in THE WIZARD OF OZ (with six nominations and only two wins - Best Song "Over the Rainbow" (almost cut from the film by MGM executives) and Best Original Score)
* Director William Wyler's best film version of Emily Bronte's romantic novel about doomed lovers in WUTHERING HEIGHTS (with eight nominations and only one win - Best Black and White Cinematography by Gregg Toland, who, the following year would shoot CITIZEN KANE for Orson Welles)
* Director Frank Capra's film MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (with eleven nominations and only one win - Best Original story) of Lewis Foster's story about a naive and innocent junior senator.
But on this night the movie receiving Hollywood's glitter and gold was perhaps the most highly anticipated film in Hollywood history. The public had quickly made Margaret Mitchell's novel a best-seller after its publication in 1936. (It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.) Sales of the novel, at the virtually unprecedented price of three dollars, reached about one million by the end of that year. Once it was announced that Selznick planned to adapt it the screen, the novel's legion of fans eagerly gobbled up any news about the production. The public also began clamoring for their favorite stars to play specific characters in the book.
Five months earlier---while the film was being edited---when Selznick was asked by the press how he felt about the film, he said: "At noon I think it's divine, at midnight I think it's lousy. Sometimes I think it's the greatest picture ever made. But if it's only a great picture, I'll still be satisfied."
On September 9, 1939, Selznick, his wife Irene Mayer Selznick, investor Jock Whitney, and film editor Hal Kern drove out to Riverside, California, with all of the film reels to preview it before an audience. The film was still unfinished, missing many optical effects and most of Max Steiner's music score. They arrived at the Fox Theatre, which was playing a double feature of HAWAIIAN NIGHTS and BEAU GESTE. Kern called for the manager and explained that they had selected his theatre for the first public screening of GONE WITH THE WIND. The theater manager was told that after HAWAIIAN NIGHTS had finished, he could make an announcement of the preview, but was forbidden to say what the film was. People were permitted to leave, but the theatre would thereafter be sealed with no re-admissions and no phone calls out. The manager was reluctant, but finally agreed. His only request was to call his wife to come to the theatre immediately. Kern stood by him as he made the call to make sure he did not reveal to his wife the name of the film.
When the film began, there was a buzz in the audience when Selznick's name appeared, for they had been reading about the making of the film for more than two years.
In an interview years later, Kern described the exact moment the audience realized what was happening:
"When Margaret Mitchell's name came on the screen, you never heard such a sound in your life.
"They just yelled, they stood up on the seats...I had the [manually-operated sound] box. And I had that music wide open and you couldn't hear a thing. Mrs. Selznick was crying like a baby and so was David and so was I. Oh, what a thrill! And when (the words) "Gone with the Wind" came on the screen, it was thunderous!"
In his biography of Selznick, David Thomson wrote that the audience's response before the story had even started "was the greatest moment of his life, the greatest victory and redemption of all his failings."
After the film, there was a huge ovation. In the preview cards filled out after the screening, two-thirds of the audience had rated it excellent, an unusually high rating. Most of the audience begged that the film not be cut shorter and many suggested that instead they eliminate the newsreels, shorts and B-movie feature, which is eventually how GONE WITH THE WIND was screened and would soon become the norm in movie theatres around the world.
With thirteen nominations, the most ever up until that time, GONE WITH THE WIND won 10 Academy Awards--8 regular, 1 honorary, 1 technical--a record that stood for twenty years, until BEN HUR won eleven in 1960.
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Rhett: With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.
Scarlett: Great balls of fire. Don't bother me anymore, and don't call me sugar.
Scarlett: I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.
Rhett: No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.
Rhett: Did you ever think of marrying just for fun?
Scarlett: Marriage, fun? Fiddle-dee-dee. Fun for men you mean.
Rhett: I can't go all my life waiting to catch you between husbands.
Scarlett: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?
Rhett: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
Scarlett: Sir, you are no gentleman.
Rhett: And you, Miss, are no lady.
Scarlett: 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 folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.
Scarlett: Cathleen, who's that man staring at us? The nasty dog.
Cathleen Calvert: Why that's Rhett Butler, he's from Charleston.
Scarlett: He looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.
Rhett: Here, take my handkerchief. Never in any crisis of your life have I known you to have a handkerchief.
Scarlett: Rhett, don't. I shall faint.
Rhett: I want you to faint. This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you've ever know have kissed you like this, have they? Your Charles, or your Frank, or your stupid Ashley.
Mammy: It ain't fittin'... it ain't fittin'. It jes' ain't fittin'... It ain't fittin'.
Rhett: My darling, you're such a child. You think that by saying, "I'm sorry," all the past can be corrected.
Gerald O'Hara: Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts.
Scarlett: I'll think of some way to get him back. After all...tomorrow is another day.
Scarlett: I only know that I love you.
Rhett: That's your misfortune.
---Hoyt Harris, Lafayette, LA