Gone With the Wind: Selznick’s ost Overpraised, Overestimated Picture

Warner Four-Disc Collector’s Edition

Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel. Irving Thalberg to Louis B. Mayer

David Selznick thinks Gone With the Wind is art and will go to his grave thinking so. Orson Welles

I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug. Malcolm X

For many moviegoers, Gone With the Wind (GWTW), now celebrating its 65th anniversary with Warners’ Four Disc DVD Collectors Edition, represents the pinnacle of Hollywood entertainment. Several cultural historians have called the film “a national epic with contemporary meaning.”

The new collectors edition, the fifth home-video reissue of the film, is full of extras. Its goal of trying to recreate the filmgoing experience back then is admirable. This version restores the film, whose original colors have badly faded, as closely as possible to its 1939 Technicolor glory. It contains the original prologue and the preshow featurette, plus a full-color reproduction of the souvenir program sold at various engagements.

Also included are historian Rudy Behlmers commentary, and the 1989 documentary, The Making of a Legend, with numerous Scarlett wannabes screen tests, costume fittings for Gable and Leslie Howard (who at one point complained that he looked like a gay doorman. Melanie Remembers, is a nostalgic piece based on anecdotal materials from Olivia De Havilland, the only survivor of the original cast. Taken together, the four discs begin to suggest why GWTW is Americas all-time favorite movie.

A lot has been written about GWTW, in front and behind the cameras. I explored its troubled production in my biography of George Cukor, Master of Elegance (1994). As is well known, Cukor was the original director, who worked on the film for two years before getting fired by producer David O. Selznick. Cukor did all the casting and shot some of the films best scenes (such as Melanies child birth), which remain intact in the final version. In that biography, I tried to clear some misconceptions, such as the prevailing notion that Cukor was fired because Gable resented his homosexual director.

All of which is untrue. My evidence points to a different direction: Selznick simply didnt like Cukors work, his pacing of some important episodes, his preferential treatment of Vivien Leigh. There were also conceptual differences between the two. Cukor always saw Margaret Mitchells book and the movie as a quintessentially womens material. The books most loyal fans were young women. Indeed, though Gable was a bigger name than Leigh at the time, his role in the movie is smaller and less important than Scarletts.

In this essay, I hope to offer some fresh insights about thee legacy of GWTH, its merits and problems, six decades after it had been made.

Having watched the film at least a dozen times, it strikes me again that the greatness of GWTH lies not in its artistic values as in its solid and sweeping entertainment, which viewers worldwide have been able to enjoy. Clocking in at close to four hours, GWTW is the Hollywood entertainment to end all Hollywood entertainments. The movie represents the American Cinemas Golden Age, much as the films subject represents the lost golden era of the Old South.

Andrew Sarris was the first critic to point out that GWTW is one of the few notable exceptions to the auteur theory and its notion of directorial signature. Selznick, Ben Hecht, George Cukor, Sam Wood, William Cameron Menzies all contribute to the final shape of the picture, though Victor Fleming received sole directorial credit, for which he won the Oscar. For Sarris (and others, including Orson Welles, quoted above), GWTW failed as art due to the incessant interference with a project that was too big to be controlled by a single directorial style.

The script is as aesthetically undistinguished as Mitchells prose. It was written by at least ten writers, resulting in a patchwork job with no coherent intelligence behind it except Mitchells source material. The movie succeeded as entertainment due largely to the inspired casting of Vivien Leigh. Audiences responded to the actors mythic screen persona. Gable was already a legendary star, whereas Vivien Leigh became one after the picture, for which she won her first Oscar.

Theres strong support to Cukors conception of the film as a womans melodrama. Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler has claimed that Mitchells novel was addressed not to the mothers, but to the Daughters of America. After all, Scarlett was a modernist heroine, the eternal adolescent whos bright, heartless, selfish, indomitable, and desirable. GWTH begins with a prologue that seemed nostalgic in 1939, but is problematic today: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow. Here was the last ever seen of the Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.” GWTW laments the end of the Old World, be it real or imagined.

Against this backdrop of lost world, though, is the message that the spirit of the Old South, which is the spirit of America by association, will live on forever despite obstacles. Hope and optimism are the basic elements of survival, GWTW teaches us. This lesson is reflected in Scarlett O’Haras speech, which ends up the movie: “Tara! Home! I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day!” Earlier, Scarlett is taught by her Irish father that Tara, and the land, outlast everything. Hence, GWTW perpetuated the myth of the sacredness of the Land.

GWTH was released in December 1939, at a time when the U.S. was aware of the growing political unrest in Europe and its potential threat for America. Hope and optimism were needed in the face of these new threats and fears. As Americans watched the Old World of Europe crumble, they were reassured by GWTW that their American world would live on, no matter what might happen.

One of the movies most problematic aspects is its depiction of black slaves, as the prologue states, “Here was the last ever seen of Master and of Slave.” The Mammy figure (played by Hattie McDaniel) and her younger counterpart Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) are offensively racist portrayals. While they have hearts of gold and are loyal, theyre often used for comic relief in the film.

The films “Jim Crow” humor has come under attack by many black critics, including Malcolm X, who wrote in his autobiography after seeing the film, “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.” The blatant racism is reflected in the pity, pathos, and condescension toward the black characters. Mitchell was not alone in thisSouthern literature often described Negroes as darkies who had to be handled gently like children, that is, to be commanded, praised, patted, and scolded.

Nevertheless, blacks and whites alike have made GWTW the most successful film of all-time. If the films box-office grosses are adjusted to today’s economy, GWTH could easily beat out every blockbuster, including Titanic and E.T. NBC paid $5 million for one showing of the film, then CBS paid $35 million for showing of the film over ten years. In 1984, when GWTW was first placed on the video market, it did great business, and I expect the same of Warners new DVD edition.

GWTW is now firmly lodged in American pop culture. The Alexander Doll line has continued to make GWTW dolls since 1937, especially Scarlett O’Hara dolls. Additionally, there have been collector plates, commemorative stamps, drinks named after Scarlett and Rhett, children and pets named after favorite characters.

Language from the film, including the infamous line “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” has found a permanent place in American rhetoric. Joseph I. Breen of the Hays office had forbidden the line, which was also filmed, as “I don’t care,” just in case. However, after six months of please to Will S. Hays, and payment of a token fine, the (in)famous line remained intact, to be quoted by generations of moviegoers. Other memorable lines, assuming folkloristic role, include, “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” “Tomorrow is another day,” and “Don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”

To the question posed by the film’s ambiguous ending, “Did Scarlett ever get Rhett back” an answer finally arrived in Alexandra Ripley’s novel, Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s GWTW. In 1993, Scarlett appeared as a CBS miniseries, sparking further revival of the original film. The disappointing sequel only elevated the visibility of the original. Today, no one remembers the TV miniseries but we still cherish Gone With the Wind as the most beloved American film ever made.

Please read review of Warner’s 70th anniversary two-disc DVD edition.