Monday, April 28, 2014

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color)
Academy Award for Best Editing
Academy Award for Best Art Direction
Honorary Academy Award for achievement in color
#2 on AFI Top Passions
#2 AFI Top Film Scores
#43 on AFI Top Cheers
#4 on AFI Top Epics
National Film Registry

It does not get more “Hollywood” than this. It was the most anticipated picture of its day. Word of mouth made it most highly publicized feature and the most talked about production ever to grace a Hollywood sound stage. From the moment Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning novel hit the bookshelves it seemed to take the industry by storm as to who would be involved in the film adaption. As all things seemed to swirl around this singular production the film would be released in 1939, amide the brightest year of Hollywood’s fabled “Golden Age.” Gone with the Wind would take hold of the industry and its clamoring audiences, becoming one of the most celebrated and cherished motion pictures of all time encapsulating all the industry seemed to offer in a colorful, dramatic package.

She loves him...
Gone with the Wind is a drama about a southern belle and her desperate attempt to win the man she loves, who happens to be married to another woman, and her turbulent relationship and marriage to a successful gambler, set to the background of the American Civil War and subsequent  Southern Reconstruction. When Scarlet O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) learns that Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who she secretly loves, is to marry thevery sweet and lovely Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) Scarlett makes it her life work to win Ashley for her own. Letting  her secret passion for Ashley get the best of her Scarlett catches the eye of a strong headed southern gentleman of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who is drawn in by her strong will as well as her beauty.

...but he loves her
Outbreak of the American Civil War dramatically changes the southern world Scarlett holds so dear. Scarlett twice marries under false pretenses and is widowed both time, first in attempt to make Ashley jealous, and secondly for financial stability to save her beloved home plantation known as “Tara.” Despite her scorn for him, the intellectual, charming, and successful Rhett Butler, Rhett uses his financial and social means to marry Scarlett with hope that one day she would love him as she does Ashley. Regardless of all the affection Scarlett continues her affection for Ashley, and when Melanie passes away from a long illness Rhett comes to terms that Scarlett now has the ability to marry Ashley, leaving her. Realizing she has come to love Rhett and could never be happy with Ashley Scarlett is broken. She has lost everything, including everything she once loved and all the things she could have had if she had not let her infatuation blind her. Everything she loved was… gone with the wind.

The motion picture, especially considering the time when it was released, is breathtaking. The colors are vibrant. The cinematography is masterful.  The art direction is epic. The stars are radiant. The picture was a creative tour de force for its age. With a story that lacks significant punch through much of the picture coupled with its significantly long running time which skated along the absurd length of three hours and forty minutes (that is not including its entrance music and intermission) Gone with the Wind makes up for its droll drama with exquisite beauty in production quality.

Wounded Confederate soldier line one of the most dramatic shots of the film.
The picture feels as if it knows it was important for its time. This, in part, would be due to the lengthy history of the film’s production and Hollywood publicity that made Gone with the Wind a juggernaut  of a feature. The film would forever change the perception of the picture’s two most central stars in Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. From the moment the two are introduced on the screen, with two of the very finest character reveals ever to grace celluloid, these two actors would forever be Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in the annuls of cinema history.

The story of Gone with the Wind goes back to the novel by Margret Mitchell released in 1936. A Southerner from Georgia herself, Mitchell penned the lengthy story to encapsulate the livelihood that she only heard about the Old South in tales as she grew up and how they were lost due to the Civil War literally destroying that old Southern way of life. She would do so in this coming of age saga of southern belle living in the heart of “Sherman’s March,” where the Confederate nation was cut in two and bringing it to its knees, and how she would change along with the whole South because of it. The novel hit bookstore shelves in the middle of the Depression becoming the best seller of its day. Its overwhelming success brought with it unheard of success, touted as the second best-selling book of all time in America, runner-up to only the Bible.

As novel released in the summer of 1936 and it would take only until December to sell its one millionth copy, which begged the question: which Hollywood studio would produce the movie of this book? Even before the novel was released many of the movie industry’s big studios turned down their shot at the novel for various reasons, from the unwillingness to pay a high price for the rights and various studio stars being uninterested, to the book’s radical length and the equally high estimated costs that would take to produce an adaption. This allowed the film rights to almost fall into the lap of independent producer David O. Selznick’s, who after initially turning down the story bought the rights for the sum of $50,000.

From conception the film went into pre-production limbo as Selznick knew he had to get casting correct for the picture’s two main stars. Clark Gable was always Selznick’s top choice for the role of Rhett Butler, but being he was under contract with MGM it would take a great deal of working things out to get him. While MGM held Gable over the head of Selznick, Gary Cooper was considered for Rhett, but in 1938 Selznick got his man in a deal that paid heavy dividends to MGM. Gone with the Wind would get Clark Gable, but at the heavy cost. MGM made the agreement to allow use of Gable if they distributed Gone with the Wind. Selznick was able to use Gable if he paid for the star’s hefty salary during productions lengthy period, and in return of MGM paying for half of the feature’s budget they received 50% of the profits, an unheard of percentage when it came to such deals. History shows that this paid great dividends to MGM.

The casting of Gone with the Wind’s main character Scarlett O’Hara would be the story of legend. The role of Scarlett would appear to be the most coveted role ever to have graced Hollywood. As anticipation for the delayed production moved slowly forward, so did the rumors of who would play Scarlett, who desperately wanted to the role, as well as who auditioned for Scarlett, and who eventually landed to the fabled role of Scarlett.  Publicity for casting began as a nationwide search with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of actresses auditioning for the role. In trade papers and rumor mills nearly every actress of the silver screen and stage was connected to the auditioning process. Names from Bette Davis and Jean Arthur to Audrey Hepburn and Miriam Hopkins were rumored as possibilities for the increasingly famous character.
The lives of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh would never be the same.

 Selznick International’s publicity department understood how word of mouth made both the role and the film the most desirable news in the industry and ran with it allowing all rumors to swirl about the casting of Scarlett. Selznick, however, had his eye on Vivian Leigh, a relative no name in the United States. A British born actress, Leigh had a small body of work in England that caught the attention of Selznick who made it a mission to see every one of her pictures and to be sure she could be considered as Scarlett. Despite all the publicity of the countless American actresses vying for the role Leigh was Selznick’s choice early on, with only Miriam Hopkins getting so far as a color screen test for Gone with the Wind.

Although an unknown name from the British screen playing a Southern belle in this popular story, Leigh’s performance would be life changing and her career would never be the same. Leigh would be the most overworked actress during the time of production as Scarlett was in nearly every scene of the picture. Working six or seven days a week, for twelve or more hours a day, Leigh was under great pressures to make this role memorable. While not on production Leigh would be constantly coached by, former director of the project, George Cukor as to how Scarlett was to be played on screen. All the hard work would pay off in the form of a performance that won Leigh the Academy Award for Best Actress, and cinematic immortality.

The process of adapting the lengthy novel into a script for the screen was another ordeal that lasted from beginning to end, with many changes and trials through the years of pre-production. It would be screenwriter Sidney Howard’s job to condense the tale into something that could fit comfortably into a motion picture. The first draft of the script came out to be ridiculously extensive which would have produced a feature over six hour in running time. The script would be condensed further when the film went into production, but due to Howards unwillingness to relocate from New England to be on the Southern California sets for revisions when needed a score of other screenwriters would brought on to revise the script further, including Academy Award winners of the past, stage writers, and even David O. Selznick revising at length by himself. Sidney Howard would pass away in a tragic farming accident in the summer of 1939 before the film was premiere and he would be given the loan credit as screenwriter in the credits despite lengthy alterations to his original work, as his layout played guide to the finished structure. He would receive a posthumous Academy Award for his work on the feature, a first in Academy history.

To flesh out the large remaining cast we see a star-filled cast of noble actors. Leslie Howard was a household name of some of the finest dramas of recent years as his British charm transfers well for the antebellum Southern gentlemanly ways. Olivia de Havilland plays his wife and secret rival to Scarlett. No one can dislike de Havilland in the feature, as she is the most pleasant and genuine lady of them all in the picture. Thomas Mitchell makes for the ideal fatherly figure to Scarlett while Hattie McDaniel plays Scarlett’s Mammy. McDaniel, who portrays a lifelong slave/servant of Scarlett, would win herself a Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, another first for the Academy as McDaniel was the very first African American to win an Oscar.

To originally direct this momentous production was George Cukor, well known as a “woman’s director,” who worked long and hard on the project during its lengthy pre-production. Within the first three weeks of filming Selznick become increasingly bothered by the pace with the picture and dismissed Cukor from the project. Other accounts state that Clark Gable was uncomfortable with the Cukor and aided in influencing the dismissal of Cukor, much to the displeasure of Leigh and de Havilland. Fresh off filming the Technicolor spectacle The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming was brought in to pick up the production of Gone with the Wind. The long and grueling schedule would take a toll of Fleming as he worked unceasingly on the production. For a period Sam Wood would be brought in to give Fleming a needed rest in the middle of the project. Despite the multiple hands guiding from the director’s chair Fleming would be given the sole credit for the directing duties, receiving an Academy Award for the project, helping to create some the most beautiful images of the picture.

As mention beforehand, the film appears to be very self-aware of just how momentous it was to be perceived. Aside from the creative and beautifully conceived shots of Rhett and Scarlett, the picture recreates the drama and fury of Atlanta being burned in Sherman’s March and establishes the breathtaking visions of Tara, the O’Hara plantation. The Oscar award winning color cinematography accentuates the reds and greens like no color films beforehand have. This was inspired by the writing of Margaret Mitchell who wrote with color being a major part of her description as Gone with the Wind was a verbally colorful novel.

Gone with the Wind would open originally as a road show production, adding to the mystic of the motion picture. Complete with entrance orchestral music, a full intermission, and concluding with further grandiose exit music, the viewing of this feature was made into an event. With all parts added together an evening to at the road show presentation of Gone with Wind would have been an all-night affair, lasting over four hours. The premiere was held in Atlanta, GA and made the city the talk of the nation with its gala event. The road show would move on to New York and Los Angeles before playing in the other major cities and eventual full release across the country and the world. The film opened to thunderous applause and critical accolades most places it went as the most anticipated film finally burst onto the silver screen.

Most critics praised the picture for its artistic and technical merit. The film takes ahold of the viewer with its vibrant colors from beginning to end, while the award winning composer Max Steiner’s score punctuates the drama of the characters as they grace the screen. Not all reviews would embrace the film as some critics saw the story as being too long and slow, which is very true. Much of the second half of the feature moves at such a deliberate pace that proceeds to drag as little action carries the story forward. The casting was given praise as Vivian Leigh would be singled out as a fresh face to the role of Scarlett, praising her and the producer for not bringing in an established actress, who would have brought in reputations with them from their past bodies of work, altering how audiences would have looked at Scarlett.

Hattie McDaniel was very nervous receiving her Academy Award.
Never has a single motion picture ever completely dominated an Academy Award ceremony as Gone with the Wind did in the 1940 ceremony. Winning eight competitive awards out of thirteen nominations, both marks setting records at that time for such feats, the film dominated the gala affair. In addition the feature was presented an honorary award for achievement in dramatic use of color, as well as a technical award, setting a record mark of ten total Academy Awards won.  Gone with the Wind owned the night as it competed in nearly all categories and won most of them. The evening would even overshadowed the likes of It Happened One Night in 1934 when it swept all the major awards that year. Even in the celebrated year of 1939, which contemporaries view as the finest year in motion picture production with the greatest concentration of all-time classic Hollywood films into a singular year, Gone with the Wind stood out as the picture on everyone’s mind that award season, perhaps with the help of its late release (a common award ploy seen later).

The film would re-release multiple times to fanfare.
Quickly Gone with the Wind would become the highest grossing film of all-time, passing A Birth of a Nation. As time moved on the feature would lose its crown as highest grossing film, but t is believed that more tickets have been sold for Gone with the Wind than any other film ever made. When adjusted to inflation Gone with the Wind can be considered the highest grossing film in retrospect. Audiences regularly continue to view the picture on Atlanta screens on a regular basis decades later.

In 1942 Selznick would eventually have to sell off his company, including the ownership of Gone with the Wind, which in time would eventually land in the hands of its original distributor MGM. With various re-releases, television screenings, and home video sales MGM continued to bank on the legendary success of this singular motion picture that carries with it an aura of Hollywood along with its tale of the past.

In time the film would fall into more scrutiny with the changes in culture. Issues like glorifying rape would come up in time. First and foremost of all the issues to come in the feature is the depiction of African American slaves. In the film the slaves are shown more as loyal servants that are treated fairly well by their white oppressors. Many of them even stick with their masters well after the war as loyal servants to the family who historically would have beaten and mistreated them. Hattie McDaniel would be the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy, but that would hardly be enough to say that the civil rights moment was well underway as America continues to pay for sins of their past. Most black audiences despise the film and the Mammy character for unjust depiction of black slaves in the South, a polar opposite form the adoration from white audiences.

The film leaves behind a legacy matched by only a precious few other pictures. It peppers many “all time” lists including many named by the American Film Institute. Homage would be paid to the feature many times over for its immense popularity. For a short time there was consideration of a sequel to both the novel and the film, because of its enormous popularity and bankability. Both ideas would be produced in the 1990s to little fanfare, and quickly forgotten.

After all... tomorrow is another day.
What Gone with the Wind leaves behind is a legacy of how grand the movies once were in “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” Like The Wizard of Oz, also a Victor Fleming picture, this picture continues to capture the attention of audiences decades later, not only with its story, technical merits, and beauty, but with its legendary backstory. Few films received as much anticipation as Gone with the Wind had in the late 1930s, but even fewer actually achieve the praise as it would receive after. Gone with the Wind stands as a testament to how beloved the movie experience was and still is.  For one to even think about the history of the cinema, it is necessary to remember that which was Gone with the Wind.

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