Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Undisputed Classic Time: Gone with the Wind

The last time I'd viewed the 1939 Best Picture Oscar winner, Gone with the Wind, I was in high school (that was long, long ago, kids). I loved it. But in the ensuing years, other, more esoteric and (yes) more intellectually substantial films entered my life. I also read a lot of revisionist film criticism dismissing (or outright deriding) GWTW as glossy, overwrought mainstream piffle. A coating of dust settled over my fond memories of the film. And by the time the missus purchased the deluxe four-disc DVD edition of Gone with the Wind last month, that coating of dust had calcified into a jaded crust.

The day after the Gone with the Wind DVD arrived via mail order, I popped the movie into the player, intending to give it only a minutes' cursory glance to ascertain the discs' working condition. I had my cynical grown-up pants on, and wasn't gonna waste more than a minute of my evening on the movie. It was 8:30pm on a weeknight.

Before we knew it, it was 12:30am, and Rita and I'd watched all two-hundred twenty-two minutes of it. Yes, Gone with the Wind is that addictive. And, more importantly, it's that good.

In a lot of ways, the movie defies rational criticism. It shouldn't work--its storyline is pure, overwrought pulp, with absurd coincidence piled on top of abject implausibility. And it romanticizes the Old South to an incredibly wrongheaded degree, even by 1939 standards. Yet the movie's spell is undeniable. After all these decades, it still works.

For the uninitiated, Gone with the Wind follows the saga of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a spoiled Southern Belle whose father owns Tara, a massive palatial plantation. Scarlett holds a torch for Confederate Officer Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but Ashley's engaged to the saintly Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland). The onset of the Civil War brings violent upheaval, and Scarlett evolves from thumb-sucking rich girl into a hardened, savvy enterpreneur. She singlehandedly rescues Tara from ruin and becomes one of the most powerful women in the post-war South, but the one bauble she's desired most in her existance--the hand of Ashley Wilkes--eludes her.
Gone with the Wind envelops these characters (and its audience) in one of the most incomparably lush and immersive worlds ever filmed. As designed by William Cameron Menzies (who would himself go on to direct) and shot by Ernest Haller, the Old South has never looked more ravishingly, eye-poppingly massive and beautiful. The Ringmaster spinning all of the artistic plates so adroitly in the air, director Victor Fleming, keeps the movie surging forward with relentless velocity and purpose (this is the most breathlessly-paced four hour film ever made).

It also helps that Fleming struck paydirt with his cast. Of course, Leigh (who won a Best Actress Oscar) is brilliant, but the rest of the ensemble matches her, slug for slug. Howard and DeHavilland breathe life into their soap opera archetypes, and Hattie McDaniel's nuanced work as the servant Mammy earned her a Supporting Actress Statuette. The biggest acting revelation to strike me on this re-viewing was Gable, who flat-out nails the emotional vulnerability swimming just beneath the Charleston scoundrel Rhett Butler's amusedly detached surface. There's no denying the sheer visceral impact of Butler's bleary-eyed devastation as he mourns his daughter's death in the film's final act (how in God's name did Academy voters pass Gable over for a Best Actor trophy after viewing this sequence?).

Gone with the Wind serves up classic scenes by the bushel--the terrifying burning of Atlanta; Scarlett's tense showdown with a Union soldier ramsacking the nigh-abandoned Tara; the staggering long shot of thousands of war-dead and wounded carpeting the streets of Atlanta. Amazingly, none of these setpieces feels gratuitous. Partially it's because the movie's so packed with memorable moments in the first place, but the filmmakers (no-bull old-school studio-system pros all) deserve credit for using all of the opulence, color, and action to further the storyline, not to distract from it.

And the human interactions at the movie's core, however operatically drawn, feel simultaneously timeless and contemporary. Scarlett's and Rhett's marriage arises not from true love but from convenience (at least on Scarlett's end), and a lack of communication sabotages their chances at genuine enduring love. Indeed, every relationship in Gone with the Wind ends with death or nigh-irreparable damage. Try finding more psychologically complex no-win couplings in any mainstream romance of the era--Hell, try finding them in 99.4% of Hollywood's current output.

Come to think of it (emotional manipulation by Max Steiner's stirring score notwithstanding), I'm hard-pressed to recall a crowd-pleasing sentimental audience favorite that ends as nihilistically as this one, with the heroine's child dead and her marriage all but obliterated. Tomorrow may indeed be another day, but getting there won't exactly be a picnic.

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