The best remembered and most publicized film in Hollywood's flamboyant history, the biggest of David O. Selznick's grand obsessions, and quite probably the most beloved movie of all time.
This star-studded Civil War epic, based on Margaret Mitchell's immensely popular novel, is nearly as powerful and moving today as when first released in 1939. Beneath the surface of a lavish and sometimes awe-inspiring production lies a deftly handled story about an endlessly fascinating--if not
always attractive--heroine. Though she's frequently dismissed as a simpering Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is a resilent, resourceful protagonist, equal to acts of real heroism but incapable of cliched nobility. And for many of us, there's a lesson in her story--that buying into
romantic obsession almost certainly guarantees that we'll end up with the last person we need.
Leigh won the the most coveted role in film history from a field that included Paulette Goddard, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Irene Dunne, among some 2,000 women tested
in a much-ballyhooed two-year talent search. She's nothing short of perfection. As Rhett Butler, co-star Clark Gable likewise couldn't be bettered. The only player among the majors who disappoints is Leslie Howard--he just isn't handsome or vigorous enough to motivate so much of Scarlett's energy.
Supporting performances are generally of a high order, though McDaniel's heart-tugging Mammy and Ona Munson's bittersweet trollop are rather cloying. If Butterfly McQueen's character is an alarming stereotype, her perfectly modulated comic hysteria is brilliantly entertaining; the actress can
hardly be faulted for doing her best in the context of the film's essentially racist discourse.
From a directorial standpoint, the sequences shot by "women's director" George Cukor are the best. His style is more lyrical, and more attentive to the literary qualities of the source material, than that of Victor Fleming. Nowhere is this more evident than the barbecue at Twelve Oaks and the
announcement of war--possibly the best sequence in the piece. Later, GWTW under Fleming seems to settle into itself and just tell the story. Despite some excellent sequences--Scarlett's attempt to get Dr. Meade to leave the railroad station springs immediately to mind--many of the film's purely
narrative sequences verge on the mundane. Cukor began at the film's helm but was replaced by Fleming (whose WIZARD OF OZ was also released in 1939), reportedly because the former had shifted the focus of the film too much to Scarlett and Melanie (to say nothing of leading man Gable's open disdain
for Cukor). During the course of the production Fleming suffered a nervous breakdown and Sam Wood stepped in until Fleming was well enough to return.
Although its "historical" set-pieces (e.g., the burning of Atlanta) are brilliantly realized, GWTW should not be mistaken for history--it romanticizes the slave-owning south and caricatures Reconstruction. Still, it's the peak example of the collaborative artistic achievement for which Hollwood's
Golden Age is justly celebrated. To quote Olivia de Havilland, "Everytime I see it, I find something fresh, some shade of meaning I hadn't noticed before...How fortunate that so many gifted people found immortality in GONE WITH THE WIND."
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