Tuesday, 12 May 2020

AFI #6: Gone With The Wind (1939)

This is a version of a review airing on ABC Radio Ballarat and South West Victoria on May 15, 2020.

This is part of a series of articles reviewing the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films, as unveiled in 2007. Why am I doing this? Because the damned cinemas are closed and I have to review something.

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Victor Fleming.

Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Harry Davenport, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Everett Brown, Alicia Rhett, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Laura Hope Crews, Cammie King Conlon.

Never smoke in bed.
Gone With The Wind is the cinematic personification of America. It's the biggest of big - it's over-the-top, bombastic and often melodramatic. And if you scratch the surface, it's deeply problematic, full of troublesome history, and all the heroes/heroines are horribly flawed.

Leaving aside the awkward analogy, Gone With The Wind is also fascinating, surprisingly funny, entertaining, and impressive. It's soooooo long but it's engrossing across its various chapters. Yes, some of its film making techniques have aged as poorly as its politics, but in the context of the time it was made and what it was trying to represent, it's a towering achievement.

It's hard to recommend this film to people. "Hey kids, wanna watch a four-hour-long romantic melodrama, told from the sympathetic perspective of the racist slave owners who lost the Civil War?"

But Gone With The Wind is good stuff. The love quadrangle of Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes, set against the backdrop of their world literally burning to the ground, is riveting stuff.

When I first watched this some 20-ish years ago as a 17-year-old, it didn't impress me - Scarlett O'Hara was like nails down a chalkboard. But rewatching this two decades later, it's hard to look away from her. She's pathetic and pouty, but she's also independent and fiery. She's a childish sociopath, but also a strong-willed individual who regularly gives zero fucks about what's expected of her by society. She's manipulative and money-hungry, but also unrelenting and driven. She's delusional and self-destructive, but also has the capacity to do incredible things, including dragging her family out of the ashes of a post-Civil War Deep South. That Vivien Leigh can bring all these components into one character is a triumph.

Equally as engrossing is Rhett Butler, who is like a more self-aware version of Scarlett. He's as deeply flawed, but he understands, accepts and even embraces his flaws. He sees himself and Scarlett as kindred spirits that deserve each other and belong together. He's also the first in a long-line of louche anti-heroes that continues to this day - without Clark Gable's smirking selfishness, there would be no Han Solo, to name but one obvious descendant.

Watching Rhett and Scarlett circle each other, then seemingly connect, then fall apart is fascinating, hilarious, but ultimately devastating. All the while, the angelic Melanie hovers nearby, as her husband Ashley flits in and out of the picture. Despite being less interesting, Melanie and Ashley still intrigue. Ashley is easily the most boring character in the film but also the most potent symbol. He represents the Old South, but also inspires some of Scarlett's pettiest attributes - she wants him not out of love but a mix of spite, nostalgia and self-delusion.

These compelling characters are all the more compelling for their context. You'd struggle to get a film made these days with a sympathetic view of the South in the Civil War, but it's a world that's engrossing, even for all its historical whitewashing. The burning of Atlanta and the famous shot showing the town square filled with wounded soldiers are stunning moments, amid some truly huge scenes in the classic "cast of thousands" style.

"Frankly my dear, that is a gun in my pocket."
Yes, bits haven't aged well (and, yes, that's an understatment). Its portrayal of black people is problematic, but Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning performance as Mammy is one for the ages, as is her clapback to African Americans who dubbed her an Uncle Tom - "I'd rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one". And just as there are perhaps equal arguments about whether or not her performance and its accompanying Academy Award advanced or set back the cause of black actors, it's undeniable that her final monologue to Melanie has they ascend the stairs of Scarlett and Rhett's sombre home is heartbreaking and artfully delivered.

Some of its mattes, rear projections and additional dialogue recording have aged about as well as its obvious affection for the South and glossing over of slavery. Its regular melodrama - in particular Scarlett's "God as my witness" speech just prior to intermission, and Ashley and Melanie's reunion - also feel as dated as its politics and its brushing-off of Rhett's misogyny, domestic violence, and marital rape. Many pages have been devoted to this latter elements, and for good reason, and I'm not here to excuse them, merely to examine them as part of the rich tapestry of the story and the complexities of its protagonists.

Gone With The Wind remains a snapshot of Hollywood at perhaps its most successfully ambitious - it is the first peak of Hollywood's Golden Age. It's sprawling storytelling, and it boasts some of the richest characters in the classic cinema handbook, with no small thanks owed to Margaret Mitchell's source material.

It also features the great kiss-off of all time, and a last line up there with Casablanca's. No wonder so many people give a damn.

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