|Gone with the Wind|
|DVD Romantic Drama|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 07 March 2000|
Some movies become so much a part of our lives, of the history of not just movies, but our society, that it can be difficult to judge them as movies any longer--they become huge icons that glow so brightly the surface is hard to discern. But when you strip away all the trappings from ‘Gone with the Wind,’ arguably the most famous movie ever made, you're left with what may well be the greatest melodrama in Hollywood history. It's legitimately epic -- so huge that the title sweeps across the screen one word at a time, beautifully acted, produced on a lavish scale, and technically both outstanding and innovative. Plus it's simply a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
At its heart, of course, ‘Gone with the Wind’ is a love story, dealing with the tempestuous, on-again, off-again romance of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As with ‘Casablanca,’ one of the elements that makes GWTW's romance so memorable is that you can feel the love between the two leads, but at the end, they do not get together. Furthermore, in the case of both films, they part with words so memorable as to have become a part of our culture: "Here's looking at you, kid" and, of course, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Those who love the characters wondered about what happened to them later--and, unwisely, eventually novels were written that told us the stuff we'd been better off imagining.
For those who came in late, ‘Gone with the Wind’ opens after the firing on Fort Sumter, but before the Civil War actually begins--in fact, the day before. Scarlett O'Hara is the spunky, self-involved daughter of a Georgia plantation owner whose main concern is trying to convince neighbor Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) to fall in love with her. At the big picnic at the Wilkes plantation, Twelve Oaks (and how many remember that we see a lot more of Twelve Oaks early on than we do Tara, the O'Hara plantation?), Scarlett is furious to learn that Ashley has become engaged to his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). She meets dashing, rascally Rhett Butler (Gable, not even attempting a Southern accent), who's immediately attracted to her fire and beauty, but who, to her fury, refuses to take her all that seriously.
The War breaks out, and things gradually get very bad for the Confederacy, and for Scarlett. She marries one man mostly to spite Ashley, and is left a war widow; she's both pleased and irked when Rhett realizes just how insincere her mourning is. During the siege on Atlanta, Rhett helps Scarlett and Melanie--whom he deeply admires--to escape to the devastated Tara, then goes off to fight in the last months of the war himself. Scarlett toughens up, finds strengths she never knew she had, and memorably declares that she will never be hungry again.
Eventually, Scarlett marries again, though she's still convinced she loves Ashley, but Rhett is always around ("You should be kissed, and often. By someone who knows how," he tells her). Her husband is killed defending Southern Womanhood, and she finally marries Rhett. But they're destined to be out of synch forever, each trying to get the upper hand just at the point the other is most vulnerable, emotionally. They're very much in love, but each is headstrong, proud and unbending -- especially after the birth of Scarlett's only child (in the movie; in Margaret Mitchell's novel, she had others). Finally, Rhett can stand it no longer, and Scarlett returns to Tara.
Dramatically, the last part of the movie, when Scarlett and Rhett finally marry, isn't as interesting or involving as what went before; they were more interesting falling in love than being in love. And we lose patience with Scarlett's blind refusal to accept her deep love for Rhett; his annoyance with her is more understandable. This section of the movie, except for the "Frankly my dear" departure, has fewer memorable scenes than the early stretches (how many remember there are scenes set in London?). But we can and should remember ‘Gone with the Wind’ for what it does right, not for the dying fall of its last quarter or so. We should remember it for the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, the ball in Atlanta, the stunning scene of the wounded at the railway station, the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett's return to Tara and her gaining strength from the red earth. Mostly, really, for Scarlett O'Hara herself, maybe the most memorable heroine in movie history, the original steel magnolia, and the model for Southern women ever since. The movie depends more on her character than on anything else at all, including production values, director, dialog, or Clark Gable. She's a great screen character partly because she's so exasperating, partly because both men and women admire and dislike her in equal parts.
‘Gone with the Wind’ is, of course, the pinnacle of the Hollywood epic; producer David O. Selznick not only poured everything into the film, he was a man of (mostly) good taste and great skill as a producer. He went through many writers and several directors--the film started under the direction of George Cukor, but Victor Fleming took over--and the search for Scarlett O'Hara was so memorable that a TV movie was made about it. There are several books on the making of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ all quite entertaining, and when adjusted for inflation, it's still the biggest-grossing movie in history. Selznick never made another film as memorable, and when he died, just as he feared, the obituaries all cited ‘GWTW’ as his ultimate achievement.
The title derives from Margaret Mitchell's phrase for the antebellum Old South--a society that is ‘Gone with the Wind.’ But almost as much time has elapsed between when this film was made as between the end of the Civil War and the publication of Mitchell's novel. The movie is itself a product of a later civilization that's equally ‘Gone with the Wind:’ the Hollywood star system, the glamor and glitz of the 1930s, the sensational promotions, even the filmmaking style itself. The film ripples with giant crowd scenes, the sort of thing you literally never see any more--when we do get crowds, they're all bunched together, not streaming in huge throngs down movie-set streets.
Also, the term "production designer" was invented for this movie, to describe the involvement of the great genius William Cameron Menzies, whose work went beyond art direction. He really co-directed the film, and was principally responsible for the amazing, still impressive look of the movie. In a period when Technicolor was used mostly for musicals and the like, and was usually bright and over-lit, ‘Gone with the Wind’ uses silhouettes, dark interiors, low lighting -- and is all the better for it. True reds, deep maroons, creamy butternut, cool grays, the dust itself seems colored, heightened. And the escape from Atlanta, with great walls of flame, is as awesome now as it ever was. The movie as a velvety richness that comes through even on television.
But all that is history. The movie is still alive, really, since it's out there in every video format--VHS, laserdisc and now DVD. And though the DVD offers that format's superb resolution, the currently-available disc is a major disappointment otherwise. The most extravagant laserdisc version offers a lot of supplemental material--a documentary on the making of the film, the fascinating screen tests for the role of Scarlett, production designs, still photos, a newsreel and several trailers.
But the DVD offers only one trailer and a brief, anemic "trivia quiz" that's no fun at all. It's not a matter of length, though the movie does require both sides. The three-hour ‘Great Escape’ DVD, for example, not only plays on one side, but offers a twenty-minute documentary -- on the same side. All, or at least most, of the laserdisc supplementary material for ‘Gone with the Wind’ could easily have been included on the DVD. Because it was not, for those with both laser and DVD players, the laserdisc remains the better purchase. About the only advantage offered by the DVD is that switching between the spoken English and the French subtitles reveals that Scarlett's dismissive "Fiddle-dee-dee" is "Taratata" in French.