This last weekend, I attended the American Cinematheque’s annual screening of Gone With the Wind. Before the film, James Curtis, the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Things to Come, congratulated us. Why? He told us that although there’s been a lot of talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens taking the #1 box office success crown, that is not in any way accurate, when you factor in inflation. With inflation, The Force Awakens is #14 and #1 is still Gone With the Wind. And we who attended the Aero Theatre on Saturday night were the most recent people to contribute to that figure.
I was so happy to see that Gone With the Wind attracted such a large crowd. The theater was almost completely full and that made the experience so much more enjoyable. Gone with the Wind isn’t just meant to be seen on the big screen; it’s meant to be experienced with a full audience. I first saw the film a few years ago when it was shown at the TCM Film Festival. I remember that I didn’t want to go. It was between Gone with the Wind and something else I can’t recall. My dad and I argued, but he ultimately convinced me that I should give it a chance.
I saw it in Grauman’s Chinese theater with a completely full audience and had the time of my life. It was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a theater. I was genuinely surprised at the depth of the characters and the grey moral area they were treading. And funnily enough, I loved the script. The reason I say it’s funny is that the project went through many writers – so many writers that it’s a miracle the film is coherent. Somehow, despite all the obstacles, everything came together on this film.
There are many moments in Gone with the Wind that are controversial. Before I even attended this last weekend’s screening, a friend had commented on my Facebook post, calling the film racist. She wasn’t wrong. The portrayals of the slaves in the film are very stereotypical and not very nuanced – they were “happy slaves.” However, I do believe that you need to look at films in the context of when they were made. While the roles for these African American actors could have and should have been better, at least Gone with the Wind was giving them roles. And of course, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award.
Additionally, there are many moments in the film that are morally ambiguous. Rhett basically raping Scarlett is one of those moments. There are uncomfortable moments in the film and I’m astonished that they got past the censors of the day. However, moral ambiguity makes for interesting characters because people are complex. They don’t just do things for one reason.
Scarlett, though she’s a horrible person for much of the film, is very complex. I actually find her a very tragic character because she’s so passionate about what she wants and will do anything she can to get it, but she’s ultimately reaching for something that doesn’t exist. When she finally realizes what she does want, which is Rhett, it’s too late. There’s a scene in the film where she tells Rhett all the reasons why she’s going to hell. It makes you see Scarlett in a different light. She understands on some level that she’s done wrong, but not enough to put someone else’s needs in front of her own.
The cast really makes the movie. Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland sell the story. Clark Gable did not even want to be in the film though, calling it a “woman’s picture.” It would be very hard to imagine it without him. Vivien Leigh beat out every young actress of the time for this role. She put everything she had into this part and her performance is enough reason to watch the film. Olivia de Havilland is also wonderful in the film, the only character who is completely sympathetic (although Melanie, her character, did marry her cousin. Ew!).
My dad told me one of the things he thought didn’t work in the film was the casting of Leslie Howard as Ashley. Leslie Howard actually hated the part; he thought he was too old for Ashley. I actually don’t mind him though because I think it makes Scarlett’s wanting of him even more hilarious. She’s so blind to her own feelings and of what would make her most happy.
Also, the music of the film is pretty incredible. Max Steiner wrote an unbelievably beautiful and sweeping score. It’s intrinsically connected to the film. You can’t have one without the other.
There are so many stories behind this film and I really recommend watching the documentaries included on the Special Edition DVD. Honestly, the making of this film is probably more interesting than the film itself. It was a true epic; the last of its kind made is probably Titanic. It appealed to audiences because it had a little something for everyone. How many films can you say that about today?
If you have the chance to see this film in a theater, I would urge you to do so! It’s a totally different experience and you can’t fully appreciate the film on a television or god forbid, a computer screen.
75th Anniversary Trailer below…