April 17, 2011

Gone with the Wind (1939)

So, that was Gone with the Wind, was it?  Far more complicated than I expected.  On just about every level.  I don't even know where to begin.

I guess I'll start with Scarlett.  Lots of people seem to hate her (such as my wife).  I didn't.  I didn't like her either - she's hardly a very sympathetic person (and would likely scorn you for pitying her).  But I think the movie's portrayal of her speaks well of it, and is indicative of its general approach.  While there are rose-colored glasses aplenty for the fairy tale of the Old South and especially that whole slavery thing, regarding its leads I found the movie impressively observant and even handed.  Scarlett is simply presented as a hard-headed woman with "gumption," as the novel's author, Margaret Mitchell, put it; neither demonized nor sugar-coated.  The consequences of her actions do not leave any single, simplistic conclusion to draw about her, except that she's complicated and willful and fun to watch.  As Garry Marshall put it in the movie Soapdish: "Stable?  I'm stable.  Who wants to watch me on television?"

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with Scarlett that is the fault of Vivien Leigh.  Her efforts are pitch-perfect: fierce and.. just... young.  Young with both the good and bad connotations.  Rhett even calls her childish, and it's an apt label.  It's also one of the principle similarities between Scarlett and the Old South itself.  They are pretty, charming, vain, selfish, idealistic to a fault, and stuck on a fairy tale that no longer exists (and in fact - though the movie doesn't seem to recognize this - never really existed in the first place, either in the Old South or Old England or anywhere else).  In short, they need to grow up.  But is the movie really aware of this?  Does it really believe in the dream of Tara or is it pointing out the illusion?  I see clues pointing both ways, but the ambiguity, I suspect, is crucial to the movie's enduring success.  For my part, I think women who openly idolize Scarlett are as confused as men who idolize Travis Bickle's "You lookin' at me?" scene.

Rhett Butler, on the other hand, I don't understand at all.  Despite being the other one printed big on the poster, his function in the story is much murkier than I would have expected.  He's quite enjoyable in the first half, as his job is basically to pop up from time to time and comment on the silliness of it all.  Fun, but hardly essential.  In the second half he becomes a much more active part of the story, and a continuing foil for Scarlett, but somehow a rather arbitrary one.  He is contrasted with Scarlett to an extent, though there is a much clearer contrast between her and kind-hearted Melanie.  Often he comes off as the detached but clear-headed voice of reason.  But by the end he's made his own mistakes and succumbed to bouts of doubt, loathing, and even madness.  I guess I just never understood his motivations.  There seems to be a good deal of conflict burbling under the surface, but we never get a good look at it because this isn't his story, or even really the story of Rhett and Scarlett's romance.  The only throughline that connects the first scene to the last is Scarlett's obsession with Ashley Wilkes - that's the "romance" that drives the movie, with Rhett as little more than the poor sod who got trampled by the whole situation.

Much is made of his departing line, "I don't give a damn."  The devastating, nail-in-the-coffin put-down to Scarlett, or so everyone says.  But, when the moment actually came, that's not what I saw at all.  I'm not sure what I saw, but it wasn't a virtuous character escaping the clutches of a madwoman with devastating panache.  In fact it came during Scarlett's moment of greatest vulnerability; a confession of love that might, for once, have actually been the truth.  Too little too late, according to Rhett, and he's probably right.  But hardly the moment for a put-down either, if that's even what it was.  It sounded to me more like quiet exasperation from a very tired man, and nothing more.  It certainly didn't work in any case: the movie doesn't end before Scarlett again finds her implacable resolve.

The structure of the film was a bit frustrating to me.  Apart from Rhett's exit, most of what people remember about the film is in the first half.  I can see why.  Ridiculously fancy parties, stunning photography, cast of thousands, war, suspense, the burning of Atlanta.  Everything here is big and broad, including the pacing.  Yeah, it's stretched out and overwrought, but that's what big epic movies are all about.  The grandeur.  The drama.  One thing I can say about Gone with the Wind - right from the opening title it has an audacity the likes of which I've never seen before (note the use of a very formal "Cast of Players" in the titles - something we haven't seen since the early silents).  But by about half an hour into Part 2 the film has become something it never was before: rushed.  And disjointed.  The first half is painted with long, clean lines.  The second half gets progressively closer to just scribbling.  Scenes eventually became almost isolated tableaux, cut by long (though unspecified) passages of time.  It's not unlike the high school American History class, which has inevitably spent too much time on the early stuff and is now rushing to get through Reconstruction before finals.  The hurry gets so bad it dilutes the style of the film.  The first half is abound with lush, dynamic, and visually striking images.  The opening by the tree.  Tracking around Mammy as she barks orders around the house.  The barbeque.  The famous reveal of the wounded soldiers.  The fire.  The rain as they hide under the bridge.  I couldn't list them all even if I needed to.  There were some great silhouette shots, which made exquisite use of color and staging.  But the stylish production design quickly becomes lost in the second half.  Scenes are in homes with people pacing or sitting, and the camera is generally still.  It becomes more and more about efficiency - which it has to, in order to get it all done in time - and the grandeur is lost.  The setup for Rhett's departure is a stirring camera truck towards the door, which caught my eye not just because it looked good, but because that sort of shot hadn't happened in a long while.

Rather than following one or two plot lines with a close eye, the second half throws new twists, turns, coincidences, and tragedies at us almost relentlessly, and usually completely out of the blue.  It's all so arbitrary.  At one point, Rhett has had enough - he's made up his mind to take their daughter to London.  This must be a momentous event.  So he takes her, and after awhile she doesn't like it, and he takes her back.  And... we're pretty much where we left off.  So what was the point of that little episode?  I kept trying to understand each scene's importance to the overall themes of the movie; how does it help the movie accomplish what it's trying to accomplish?  But nothing the movie appears to be trying to accomplish requires so many complications.  Rhett and Scarlett get mad at each other half a dozen times.  Why is the last time the real time?  We've established that the Old South is gone and Scarlett is trying to recapture it, and that she fails.  But that's not hard to portray - it doesn't require nearly so many scenes and plot points.  Perhaps the rub is in why she fails?  She concludes the first half with a pledge to never be poor again, even if she has to murder, steal, lie, cheat, etc. to do it.  And, sure enough, she runs through that promise like a checklist in Part 2... so efficiently in fact that we must have an hour of movie left after she checks everything off.  So did her ruthlessness bring about the end of her dreams?  Not really, and even if it did, it still wouldn't have taken so much plot.  The significance of their daughter, Bonnie Blue, is made pretty obvious by her name.  Except... it isn't.  The decadent mansion that Scarlett has built seems to represent the wealth and vacuous excess of the Old South, while the tenderness and honor of Melanie and Ashley would seem to represent its real heart.  So what place is there for Bonnie that isn't redundant?  As the film wanders on, tragedies strike with almost reckless acceleration.  But to what purpose?  Most of them are random acts of God, which makes them less than instructive about the character's personalities.  What led them to this?  I suppose it could be instructive to see how they deal with tragedy, but quickly we come to a point where they can't deal at all because they're busy with the next tragedy.  If the Old South was lost because of people like this, no solid argument is made for it.  But perhaps the point is precisely that it was all an act of God, totally inevitable, and they're only grasping at straws.  But, again, how does it take so much plot to make that point?  The more plot points the movie sprinkles in, the less each one is worth.  The more it spins its wheels, the less progress it seems to make.

So, while this would appear to be the sort of story one approaches in symbolic terms, I have to conclude that it really isn't, at least not on the higher levels.  What it really is, is a movie based all too faithfully on a novel - A real novel, in the old-fashioned sense, with lots of characters involved in lots of overlapping, intertwining little stories, and not so much one big one.  Which is no bad thing, at least not if you're Charles Dickens or Margaret Mitchell.  Books are good at that sort of thing.  TV shows are too.  But movies are not.  They are a taut medium.  My final verdict on Gone with the Wind is that it was just a little too ambitious.  It tried to stretch the boundaries of what movies are capable of (to its credit), and wound up with essentially two different movies back-to-back.  The first is sweeping, ridiculously grandiose cinema, and the second is a full season of soap opera smooshed into two hours.

Just a note here - I couldn't get this to fit anywhere else in the review - but as an editor my favorite scene was the building tension as the Yankees approach in Atlanta, where Scarlett bustles around amid all the orange dust.  Up to that point, I was going to complain that composer Max Steiner was overscoring the movie, but he wisely lets that sequence play in musical silence, allowing the tension to build through cutting and background sound.  Marvelously done.

NEXT WEEK: His Girl Friday.  Only on Saturday.


  1. You know, i always though Scarlett more or less represented the reconstructed south, or at least Mitchell's vision of it. Plucky, animalistic, thoughtless, and vain. She moves forward without much reflection, but she always survives. In the end, she's isolated everyone, including those like her. All the things she worked for, save maybe Tara, the symbol of the old south, mean nada.


  2. More accurate, I think, to say that Scarlett simply is the South in sum, old and new. Towards the end Rhett makes mention of how he wants to get the "old" Scarlett back (and had hoped to achieve that through Bonnie). But she's lost to him.

    What bugs me about that, though, is that I never felt Scarlett changed much, if any. The actions "new" Scarlett takes seem like what "old" Scarlett would have done in those circumstances, had life not come on a silver platter. Of course, that seems accurate enough to me - the reconstructed South is more like the old South than Mitchell would probably admit. All it's missing is the slaves to make it run smoothly.