GONE WITH THE WIND
The prettiest two weeks I ever spent trapped and hungry in a theater.
Directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood, and to, some extent or another, William Cameron Menzies
Written by Sidney Howard et al (based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)
With Vivien Leigh (Scarlett Butler, aka Scarlett Kennedy, aka Scarlett Hamilton, nee Scarlett O'Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Olivia De Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), and some kind of racist cartoon named "Butterfly McQueen" (Prissy)
Spoiler alert: I don't give a damn (ha ha)
I had the pleasure this weekend to see super-producer David O. Selznick's Gone With the Wind in a full-blown theatrical presentation—and it was a pleasure, despite the gentle sneer above and the more serious ambivalence you'll discover below. I attended along with, I estimate, 500 other Columbians—enough Columbians, at any rate, that they had to do a second screening to accommodate the overflow, which itself filled up to about fire code limits. Demographic composition: 80% female, 90% over 40, infinity% the liliest of lily white.
I also learned that, apparently, I'm not supposed to compare the Confederate States of America to Nazi Germany in public. And perhaps I was right to be chastised. After all, the far better comparison is Imperial Japan, in that long-gestating historical forces, combined with the evil ambitions of class criminals, brought an army of exuberant naifs into battle against the United States, where their under-equipped forces were wiped out and their cities lain to waste by fire. Then again, there really is no place like home, for rarely has a culture snatched victory from the jaws of defeat like the South. One of the interesting things about Wind is how, on its face an allegory made flesh in the person of Scarlett O'Hara for the loss of a civilization, it serves better as an unintentional lesson about the abject failure of Reconstruction to reconstruct anything worth having.
When it comes to morality, I don't permit any piece of art its "context." The stupidest idea anyone ever had was that people in the past can't be judged by the morality of the present. Of course they can. They were bad. The end. And the people of 1939, I trust you'll agree, can be judged right down to the ground.
This is all to say that The Wind is a direly immoral motion picture. Indeed, it is so immoral that it runs headlong into Poe's Law in the first five minutes:
What do you mean, they're not being sarcastic?
I won't belabor the abomination that is Prissy, except to say that even if she were white, she'd be almost as horrible. Every other black character in this movie is barely a step up, however. Mammy, personified by Hattie McDaniel, is traditionally said to be a somewhat redeeming figure amidst all this extreme racism, but I fear this is only in comparison to her colleagues. McDaniel's even keel of a performance makes her bearable, and this is all; in fact, she's not even entirely bearable all of the time. Her first impression—as a matron shaking her head at Scarlett's varsity-level cockteasing—is rather upsetting. How many times can a woman say "mm-mmm" in an impotently scolding manner? The answer is, I think, "one billion times more than necessary, which is once or, perhaps, twice."
The Wind's elysian depiction of slavery—and this depiction was condemned even by contemporaries, although, sadly, mostly by black contemporaries—comes close to and may be the most offensive thing I've ever seen in a film.
It's almost annoying, then, that in its first echelon of two, it is also an extraordinary and great film.
For one thing, if you do despise the CSA (and, for God's sake, why wouldn't you?) Wind offers many consolations to your hatred. It supposes a counterbalance to the precipitous "patriotism" of Tom Hamilton and his ilk in the form of one Rhett Butler, who sees the war as a very stupid idea, and engages in it solely as means to get rich as a blockade runner. If he ultimately becomes moved by the death of his "countrymen," and goes to join the infantry, we can attribute this to trauma. Further, Wind presents the CSA's dissolution by Sherman's righteous arms as a form of frankly exhilarating spectacle. You are invited to enjoy a most gloriously-rendered immolation of Atlanta, and in the film's second-most famous shot, you are not exactly invited to enjoy the deaths and maimings of many thousands of Jefferson Davis' soldiers of darkness, but you can if you want. This latter is one of the film's few flirtations with political irony, and it is pretty much impossible to miss. That flag equals the waste of many young men, who—it must be said—either were volunteers for the Southern cause and therefore deserved it, or were conscripts who failed to desert to the North and therefore deserved it only slightly less, but who nevertheless were human beings who could feel pain and feared death.
I restrained my cheers out of pure politeness.
The careful reader will notice that I qualified the claim that Wind is a great motion picture, but greatness is there and in no small quantity; there are no small quantities in this movie. Aside from its troubling nostalgia (of which I will speak no more, I promise), the first half is essentially perfect in all other respects, from the superb reveal of Scarlett O'Hara to the inimitable silhouette of Scarlett Hamilton daring the heavens to try to keep her down a moment longer. And even as the film goes on after the intermission, it remains an astonishingly beautiful Technicolor painting—what do you even do, to make a sky like that?—albeit it is one rendered by many different painters. One of them seems to be a Venetian taking after Titian and understandably impressed with Scarlett, another a realist taking after Rockwell though a lot keener on the antebellum South, and finally there is some kind of baroque shadow-monster sometimes taking after Rembrandt, and other times after Caravaggio, and who also is extremely fond of Scarlett, but in a different register, becoming disturbingly engorged with the vividest reds and blacks at the prospect of her rape.
Enter William Cameron Menzies!: the first production designer, and hence the greatest man who ever lived. This was the dreaming genius who brought the Thief of Bagdad's fantasia to life, and the force of history who, as the most important member of the triumvirate that included Zoltan Korda and H.G. Wells, helmed the ninth best film made before I was born, Things to Come. (And this is the only place, I reckon, that you will hear Things to Come described as the best anything, even the ninth best, but insofar as an opinion can be true, it is true.) Because that semi-obscure 1936 wonder exists, Wind cannot be considered his masterpiece, but it is surely very close.
Wind is storied for its production, which involved the firing of its first director, George Cukor, and the nervous exhaustion of its credited one, Victor Fleming. Sam Wood stepped in to finish what Fleming couldn't. But Menzies was the eminence grise who was there from beginning to end. In fact, he directed at least a few sequences himself. (The shots of Scarlett hiding beneath the stairs, Scarlett and her father gently crushed beneath the golden sky, and the burning of Atlanta are so obviously Menzies that whether he physically stood there while a cameraman photographed them, I am entirely comfortable saying he "directed" them.)
Menzies was not just the guy who said what the sets would look like—though he was also that, and the sets are breathtaking, and being "just" that would be more than enough. Menzies was the visual force that unified Gone with the Wind. It is thanks to Menzies, more than anyone, that the diverse styles that make up Wind don't once feel any more diverse than its intended audience of purebred Caucasians.
Menzies served in many respects as the executor of Selznick's less technically-minded will, described as "the final word," in Selznick's own words. In a way, Menzies was the author of the film—if you subscribe to auteurism as a theory, which I don't, though Menzies sure as hell did, though he didn't attribute a film's ownership to its director. Menzies was ideological about his role, if not downright messianic, and it is for this reason that his efforts were rewarded with the credit he craved most of all. Thus was Wind the very first film to be explicitly production designed. Menzies could plausibly claim as much of a director's credit as Cukor or Wood, but our civilization is richer for the distinct art he helped codify. And it is Menzies, and one other, who keeps Wind on its feet when everything else fails.
That other is, obviously, Vivien Leigh. (And, it's a bit of a rhetorical flourish, too, for Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland are excellent as well.) But I do not come to Leigh with the unalloyed praise you have been conditioned to expect.
It's so easy to consider Wind as two entirely separate films that it's almost unavoidable. The first half is something very special: foremost, it is a coming-of-age tale, but more intriguingly, indeed paradoxically, this film's ceaseless retrogress is pulled forward into the then-present of 1939—and beyond—by the iron will of its heroine, and the iron performance of its lead.
Leigh is beautiful enough that even when set against other, excellently-attractive actresses, she manages to convince as the belle of her little world, the center of all men's attention. She is charismatic enough, beyond her beauty, that she forces all of them, man and woman alike, right into the background. And between her and the script, Scarlett cuts a compelling figure, a young woman too resplendent in the constraints of her society to at first notice that her discomfiture comes from chafing against them. She will grow into one of the most powerful women cinema has ever seen.
Though she, Scarlett, is not—absolutely not—without flaw. She is obsessed, rather vainly so, with one Ashley Wilkes, though it becomes rapidly clear to everyone but her that the only reason she claims to love him is because she can't have him. The first stirrings of the woman she shall become rise up when she meets Rhett Butler, a man she says she hates; she finally notices those stirrings when she meets him again, while in false mourning over the dead husband she married in a fit of pique over Ashley. One of the best scenes Wind offers, visually and narratively alike, is Scarlett dancing with Rhett, defying convention and scandalizing all who see her, her jet black widow's dress in defiant opposition to the vibrant Technicolor accoutrements of the other girls, and I could've watched Leigh and Gable dance for an hour. This is the single scene of Wind that feels like it is too short, rather than just right. Their romance, however, comprises many scenes, and—such as it is—it slow burns for hours, and hours, and hours and hours and hours.
...and hours and hours and...
But wait, do I not adore the epic form? I do, though there's no way you would know that, so your confusion is forgiven. The epic done right embraces you in the sweep of history and huge emotions, impressing upon you the mythic with size and scope and scale and space and, yes, time. But what it cannot do—what it must not do—is become small. And Gone with the Wind becomes so very small in the end, and the biggest performances, the most memorable lines, do not redeem it.
All is well at the outset of the second film that comprises the latter half of Wind. Though the urgency of the Civil War is now past, and the pace is necessarily slower, there remains an enormous amount of incident. It is simplest to say that Scarlett Hamilton, then Kennedy, then, finally, Butler, never does go hungry again. (In the final phase of the film, there is so much incident that it becomes, unintentionally, quite funny.) A film that concluded earlier, or even more happily, may well have been significantly better. Not because the ending isn't the right ending for its characters, and not (entirely) because the film simply exhausts itself (though God knows it does), but because it is not till near the end that you come to realize what Rhett said many hours ago about Scarlett was true, and true in its most horrible form.
In the final moments of Gone with the Wind, you realize that you have not watched an epic, nor even a melodrama, though it has the trappings of both, but the life story of a functional sociopath, for FOUR. HOURS.
I shan't list Scarlett's sins; they are patent enough. There's nothing to criticize about Leigh directly, for she contends mightily with the script's—and, by information and belief, the novel's—extraordinarily soulless creation. It's triumph enough that she overcomes the Mary Sue aspects of Scarlett's construction, though I suspect these might be exactly what's guaranteed Wind's perennial popularity. And it's a colossal talent that turns her atrociously self-centered shittiness and profound lack of empathy—already quite evident in the first half from our vantage point in the second—into what initially seems instead like mere teenaged callowness that matures instantly into a woman, in the film's best and most famous shot.
We can still admire the predatory instincts that keep her alive in the aftermath of the war, but when she cannot put them aside, it begins to slowly dawn that there is no arc for Scarlett, only experiences: experiences that make her sharper, smarter, and crueler. And we can, intellectually, still appreciate that Scarlett is an accidentally-sublime metaphor for the post-Reconstruction South, a vicious hellhole with the antebellum class and race structure largely reasserted, only now it was a culture shamed for its evil and stripped of its legitimacy.
There is even a thrill in her denouement, in the monstrous strength that renders her last narcissistic soliloquy quite terrifyingly convincing. But Leigh's ultimate impression is that of an emptied shell, that will always, and forever, remain hungry. And this is powerful stuff, but it is not the stuff of an epic, romantic or otherwise. I need no happy ending; and I hardly even desire a human one; for an epic, I need a superhuman one, not this ugly realism.
I am made to understand this is not the impression everyone has of Leigh and of Scarlett. A more facile reading is probably for the best, and if one wished, one could believe that in the last moments, she marries her strength to a new ability to love. But though Leigh performed miracles for three hours and more, she just could not convince me of something as unbelievable as that.
I doubt anyone could have, but when you learn that Miriam Hopkins was being pursued for the role, I am made to wonder if Leigh's was really the most perfect performance possible. Hopkins, though (at least) equal to Leigh in beauty, was nonetheless probably too old in 1939 for a teenaged Scarlett; and I have no specific evidence demonstrating that she was capable of the self-worship bleeding into atavistic self-preservation, such as makes the character work so well in the first half of the film. Yet Hopkins, who took a vapid Noel Coward terror and made her into the kindest, warmest human ever seen in a movie, could have effortlessly given Scarlett the exact thing she lacked, which Leigh, by design, refused to provide: the glimmer of awareness that anyone else really, truly existed.
Again, though, I endeavor to make clear that the performance that is cannot be derogated against a performance that might have been and that I only fancy—for Leigh's Scarlett certainly is. That, like Tara, no one could ever take away; like Tara, it will, apparently, last.
Score, The First Half: 9/10
Score, The Last Half: 5/10
Score, William Cameron Menzies, as a human being: 10/10
Grade, Gone with the Wind: 7/10