Gone with the Wind (1939)
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Have you ever read or seen anything as glorious as Gone with the Wind?
As my final hurrah for Adaptation Month, I figured I'd close it out with a bang. The monolithic portrait by Margarett Mitchell of the Confederacy before and after the Civil War swept people off their feet ever since it was published in 1936 and translated into a movie by David O. Selznick in 1939. It broke tons of records and, when adjusted for inflation, it is still the highest grossing American film of all time to this day.
And having read the book a couple of years ago, yes, I found myself completely entranced by the story’s exploration of the Confederacy in all its before-and-after scenarios. But it only got better: I felt like Scarlett O’Hara was one of the most multidimensional characters I ever got the pleasure to know, period, and the romance she and Rhett Butler shared cemented them as arguably one of the most iconic couples in history after Romeo and Juliet.
Well, after all that time passed, I finally scoped out the movie. And all the enthusiasm that everyone expressed over this movie? All the people who bestowed upon it the awards it won for all that it accomplished? All the confusion some people expressed over its portrayal of the Confederacy, of slavery, and of the main character? All the glowing words people said about this movie and how deserving it was of its place in cinematic history?
They weren’t kidding.
Just to clue you in on the story, it’s about Scarlett O’Hara, and at first, she wallowed in the luxuries of her old home of Tara in Confederate Georgia. One day, she set out to tell her crush, Ashley Wilkes, how she felt about him, only to be turned down when he told her that he was engaged with his cousin, Melanie Wilkes, leaving her heartbroken and disappointed. Because of that, she agreed to be Charles Hamilton‘s wife after he asked her for her hand in marriage earlier. That marriage didn’t last long, though; Charles died in action while fighting against the USA, and Scarlett ultimately decided to move to Atlanta with Melanie Wilkes, now her sister-in-law, so she can be closer to Ashley. She was especially pleased to be in Atlanta because she felt like she was allowed to do her own thing, especially during her periods of widowhood and grieving, much to the confusion, outrage, and ire of her peers. However, her time in Atlanta didn’t last long, either, as the US Army finally reached Atlanta and started to bombard the city, leaving its citizens either terrorized or fleeing for safety. Not making matters better was the fact that Scarlett had to quickly turn to Melanie, who was about to give birth to a baby boy. So, with a little help from an old friend - I’ll get to him soon - she, Melanie, and her friends all made it back to Tara, which was left in ruins due to the war. They decided to get settled there again, and with the Civil War behind them and even more ahead of them, they tried to live off the land until Scarlett was asked to pay a hefty sum of money to keep their land. So, she ventured back to Atlanta, which had now been converted into a US city, in search of money, before finding it through Frank Kennedy, and then starting her own lumber business with only convicts as her workers. The fact that she was the sole proprietor of the business put her in even hotter waters in the eyes of the other people, who were just trying to adjust to the reorganization of Atlanta themselves.
And, as if she didn’t have enough on her plate, she more often than not also crossed paths with the local rich guy and debonair womanizer, Rhett Butler. Every time they encountered each other, Scarlett felt consistently humiliated or tormented by his snarky attitude, common sense, and charismatic ways of dealing with certain situations that she’s dealing with, or that they were both dealing with. In some ways, he was also unpredictable, as he helped Scarlett and her friends flee Atlanta, only for him to leave them in the middle of the trail just as they were getting close to Tara, since he intended to just help them out of Atlanta. Soon, the connections the two of them shared started to blossom into a relationship that was passionate and riveting, yet anything but smooth.
Now, bearing in mind just how long, how huge, and how detailed the story was in a span of about a thousand pages as a book, I knew that the entire story told of Gone with the Wind had to be condensed into a four-hour runtime as a movie, and it had to do so with as much consistency, realism, and dedication to its more important circumstances as possible.
Well, I’m happy to report that whether the story was told as the book or as the movie, it still managed to pack a hefty punch. And also like the book, it allowed us to view the Confederate people in many of their normal routines, how they functioned during the Civil War, and how they had to readjust themselves to their homeland once they lost the war.
And no one expressed the luxurious lifestyles and postwar hardships better than Scarlett O’Hara herself. Yes, she started as a selfish, spoiled little girl who just wanted things to go her way, and started to express her outrage over the moment when they didn’t, especially since she didn’t want to hear another word about the then-ongoing war. However, once the war swept over Georgia and took away everything that she and everyone else so relished, she had to fight as hard as she could have to ensure that she, her family, and her friends were well-tended to, whether she took kindly to them or not.
The rest of the characters in the movie felt exactly as I remembered them in the book.
Rhett Butler was still the levelheaded, wisecracking, charismatic, snarky guy who tormented Scarlett with his common sense and ways of getting through to her. Melanie was still the soft, kindhearted gentlewoman who was on Scarlett's side through thick and thin. Ashley Wilkes was still the dashing, honorable man who stole Scarlett’s heart, only to become battered, beaten down, and made as normal as everyone else. Mammy, the headmistress of the O’Haras, was still sassy, no-nonsense, and spoke her mind about whatever dilemma she had to deal with, whether it was with Scarlett, or with life in general.
And that leads me to talk about the settings of Georgia, whether it’s in Tara, Atlanta, or even on the steamboat by New Orleans. The locations may not have been exactly Georgian by technicality, but they were truly marvels to look at. Tara, as well as Twelve Oaks and Atlanta, they all established an essence of grandeur that author Margaret Mitchell so pictured of the Confederacy, even if they still abided by something as logically flawed as keeping plantations and having African slaves to do all the hard labor. And when the war had come and gone, the settings all showcased a sense of dreariness to them, whether it was because they were on their last legs, or just was shown in a state of ruin because of the actions of the war.
And just like the sets, another factor that really helped lend the movie its authenticity was the costumes. They were super elegant, even if they carried a Victorian style to them, and might not have been what you’d expect to see from the Confederacy. Even then, we’re talking about some of the elite families of the Confederacy, and the costumes they went with, especially for the slaves, were mostly accurate and very nice to look at.
In fact, one of the biggest complaints Margarett Mitchell had with the movie was that she felt that the Tara plantation looked a little too aristocratic. I can understand her annoyance with the upscaling of the location and the O’Haras’ lifestyles, but somehow, they just added to the regal flavor of the movie. To each their own, but I really admired it.
Something else about the movie that I thought was marvelous to look at was the shots. The way they kept the focus on the characters in their dilemmas, or how they kept their shots on the locations, they all allowed themselves to capture the essence of the circumstances at hand and allowed us to feel it with them. One example I know of was the scenes with the characters’ shadows on the walls behind them as the characters contemplated the horrors brewing about around them or in front of them, like with Scarlett and Melanie at the nursing home in Atlanta or when Scarlett came face-to-face with her deceased mother on her deathbed in Tara. And who can forget the shot of all the sick and wounded lying out in the Atlanta streets with the tattered Confederate flag waving in front of them while Atlanta was under attack? They were very beautiful, empathetic, and visually interesting.
And speaking of the shots, the colors. The colors were freaking stunning. Not only were they very striking, very vibrant, or very deep, but they, too, helped emphasize all the major qualities of the atmosphere and moods of the movie. They helped Tara and Atlanta look beautiful and they made the more dreary scenes at night feel more tense or emotional. And, the way I see it, the warmth and the hues tied back to the feeling of nostalgia, just as Mitchell felt about the Confederacy. And this was impressive, too, because around the time of its release, only three films pioneered in the use of Technicolor: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and The Wizard of Oz, which coincidentally was released in the same year as Gone with the Wind.
I also ought to give the movie credit for flipping some negative clichés on their heads. For one, at the beginning of the movie, India Wilkes and the other high-ranking ladies of Georgia were bad-mouthing Scarlett and her inability to marry other men. That might be seen as just snobbish talk by the higher-ups about the informalities of another. I remember seeing plenty of queen-bee behaviors like that bfeore in other movies, and that just drove me nuts. Here, the comments may have been hurtful, but they weren’t wrong about Scarlett. After all, from the little we’ve seen at that point of Scarlett, she was snobbish, full of herself, and was definitely a playgirl.
And for another, I am sometimes prone to be sickened by the gold-digger stereotype. As in, the kind of girl who pretends to be madly in love with another guy, and would have been willing to do anything, even if it’s deceitful, to get what she wants, only for the beans to be spilled and for the man to find out that she was only interested in his money. And I’ll admit, when I first saw Scarlett marrying Frank Kennedy in the book, it did rub me the wrong way a little. The idea that she was willing to lie to Frank, despite him being betrothed to her sister, Suellen, just so she can get his money was somewhat deceitful and left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, as I let it sit after a while, and once I experienced it again in the movie, it actually made sense for Scarlett to marry Frank for his money given the circumstances she and her family were in. Think about it. Imagine yourself in Scarlett’s shoes, and you were toiling away in your own fields for days on end with almost no food, water, or even money, and the next thing you know, you were expected to pay a large sum of money in a tight deadline before your homeland was to be foreclosed. How would you NOT do what Scarlett did if it was just to make ends meet, or if it's just to keep yourself and your family financially active, even if it meant breaking the hearts of others?
But, at the end of the day, one of the biggest things about the movie that made it as beloved throughout the ages as it was was the performances. And my God, am I on board with them about it! Not only was the casting superb, but the reason the characters felt exactly as they did in the book was because of the performances applied onto them. Many of the actors just dug deep into each of their characters and made them feel as complex and interesting as they were in the book, and sometimes, even more so.
Leslie Howard did a nice job playing Ashley. Whether it was before or after the war, he gave his character a sense of humanity just barely noticeable from him underneath his coating of honor, but only grew to become more noticeable and present with him after he has returned from the war.
Olivia de Havilland physically and tonally went hand-in-hand with her character, Melanie. She allowed her to express her ladylike stature and considerations for other people, especially Scarlett, while still allowing her to express some subtleties that clued us in to the fact that she’s more observant and understanding of certain things than most people would have expected her to. As Rhett put it to Scarlett as they were discussing about her:
Miss Melanie’s a fool, but not the kind you think.
Come to think of it, some parts of the movie showed off Melanie as possibly being a lioness in sheep‘s clothing thanks to de Havilland’s performance. Like when Scarlett faced off the rogue US soldier who invaded their home in Tara, she came prepared to strike him with a sword had Scarlett not beaten her to the punch with her gun. And during the scene where she, Scarlett, and the other ladies were being interrogated by the US police about their husbands’ and Rhett’s whereabouts, Melanie was the most vocal and firm out of all of them, defying the officers’ statements about these men, especially Ashley, being up to no good. These aspects of Melanie‘s character made her feel more rounded and confident than I remembered her from the book, and de Haviland pretty much mastered it to me.
Now let’s talk about Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. This had to be one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen from the movie. At a time when African-Americans were often seen or treated as second-class citizens, she still may have expressed some stereotypical traits to Mammy’s character, but they were outweighed by her sassy attitude, her disposition with herself or with her friends, and the fact that McDaniel allowed Mammy to be human first, and a housemistress second. Even in the more emotional scenes in the movie, McDaniel didn’t allow Mammy to just express her sorrows in an over-the-top way. Instead, she just let her be as emotional as Mammy herself would have been under such circumstances, and they all felt genuine. One of the reasons I find her performance as superb as it was was because it might leave you uncertain over how to process her relationship with the O’Haras. Sometimes, it may have come across as just that of a slave or housemaid. But other times, you kind of got the impression that she was just a dear old friend of the O’Haras who, among other things, knew Scarlett ever since she was born...similar to how Rafiki new Simba ever since he was born in The Lion King. The performance was so good, in fact, that Hattie McDaniel went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in this movie. This was a breakthrough moment in acting history; McDaniel was not only the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for acting, but she was the first African-American individual to win an Academy Award ever. This was a breakthrough moment because this challenged how people saw, viewed, or even treated other people for all their talents instead of just for their nationality. For that reason, I really tip my hat to McDaniel for her performance and for challenging the norm at the time.
And forever taking center stage are Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, who were both just pitch perfect. Not only did they capture all the aspects of their characters, and then some, but the chemistry they both shared was very believable, profound, and very fiery.
Clark Gable just fitted his character, Rhett Butler, like a glove. He captured all of his character's charismatic qualities, while also nailing down his smart guy attitude, his primarily common-sense-oriented ways of dealing with things, especially with Scarlet, and some of his more human qualities in the last half of the film. During that section of the film, I think Gable emphasized many of the human qualities of Butler that I remembered but also forgot from the book: he was a drinker, he was arrogant, he was violent on rare occasions, and he even went out with such ladies as Belle Watling from the local whorehouse every once in a while. They only added to Butler‘s sense of humanity, and by the time his fatherly tendencies towards Bonnie Blue Butler, his daughter, were present, Butler started to feel just as characteristically complex as Scarlett. Long story short, Rhett Butler took his time to put himself on the same level as Scarlett, and I felt the same way about Clark Gable's performance, but never in a bad way.
Finally, you have Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.
In the book, there was a lot said, especially in the descriptions, about what was going on through Scarlett's mind in any given moment of her time in the story. Well, here in the movie, Leigh was able to take the character of Scarlett O’Hara and not only translate her onto the screen with dignity, grace, and to the nth degree, but everything that the movie Scarlett lacked in terms of complex emotional thought-processing, the movie made up for dearly with Leigh’s subtleties in her facial expressions and body language. They expressed how Scarlett was feeling in any given moment for us. And this all added to her already complex character. After the scene in the movie in which she married Frank Kennedy to inherit his money so she could pay off the property taxes for Tara, she underwent a bad habit of manipulating others with false emotions to do what she begged of them. So, at that point, you’d be left uncertain over whether how she was reacting was true and honest, or if it was just for show and to reel people in with her false stories. And, for about half an hour, I was sort of feeling that way, too - even though I already knew, in a sense, how she was feeling in each given moment - until her facades started to wear off and I got back to seeing Scarlett as she was normally. While Clark Gable took his time to embody all the complexities of Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh practically mastered all of her subtleties with Scarlett all the way through. Of all the actors from this picture who won an Oscar for their performances, besides McDaniel, I think Leigh was the most deserving of hers. It was just a home run.
What was even funnier was that, when Selznick was looking for the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh was the last actress anyone was expecting to play Scarlett. She was selected after Selznick interviewed over 1,400 potential actresses to play the character, many of them well-known at the time, and they showed hesitance over Leigh, since she didn’t have the most substantial film record before she starred in Gone with the Wind. But lo and behold, this movie made a star out of her!
I find Gable and Leigh’s casting in their roles to be perfect for another reason: they were met with shades of approval from Margarett Mitchell herself. Though she didn't have a major role in the movie’s production, Mitchell expressed how pleased she was of Vivian Leigh to play Scarlett O’Hara, most likely because she reminded her of her when she was younger. And considering that she based Scarlett and her life adventures out of her own, that makes perfect sense. And though she really hoped for Basil Rathsborne to play Rhett Butler, she did admit at one point that when she was putting her story together, there was only one person she pictured as she was conceptualizing Rhett Butler‘s character. And that was Clark Gable. And here he was, Clark Gable, playing Rhett Butler! How perfect a match is that?
If I had just one nitpick about the movie, I’d say that the acting from Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, one of the O’Hara slaves, was a little too hammy. Her character was fine in the book, as she was just a young, naive African-American who had no idea how to handle high-stakes situations, unlike Scarlett. But the way the actress portrayed her in the movie, I don’t know, part of it felt too wimpish, a little too stereotypical, and did a slight disservice to her character. It made her uncertainties over how to handle situations as annoying to us as they were to Scarlett.
Speaking of stereotypical, this wouldn’t be a fair review of Gone with the Wind if we didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. And that would be the movie’s glamorization of African-American slavery in the Confederacy. Many people, black or white, felt a little squeamish over how the slaves in the movie acted as if they were happy with their conditions in the South, and that the more flawed parts of slavery were not brought into discussion here. And while I can understand where they’re coming from, there are two things that I should bring up about this. One is, when I was starting to know the slaves in the book, I remember feeling as if these people were as loyal as they were to the O’Haras because the O’Haras basically treated them as people. Even when the South went through Reconstruction, the slaves still stood by the O’Haras, especially Mammy. Whether they were converted into just regular citizens and workers by then, I don’t know for sure, but I got the impression that they stood with the O’Haras out of friendship.
Even when you look at something like 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup's memoir of his hellish adventures in the Confederacy, he made clear enough that for every family in the Confederacy who treated its slaves like pets - like the ones he had to deal with - there were also families who treated their slaves fairly, like workers instead of furniture. To me, the O'Haras just felt like the kind of family who treated their slaves with respect.
And two, Gone with the Wind portrayed the African-Americans they way it did because this was a romanticized portrait that Margarett Mitchel wrote of the Confederacy. That's not to say that she should be at fault for promoting an otherwise faulty method of viewing the Confederacy, slavery, or racism, but she only wrote it in a way that she felt was closest to home as far as her knowledge of the Confederacy was concerned. Like I said, though, she was prone to have glossed over a few key details about the nation, such as the burdens and flaws of slavery, in which case, I can now see where some people are coming from. I don’t quite know if what had to say are enough to justify why I didn’t find its portrayal of the blacks as harmful as other people believe it is, but hey, it’s anyone’s guess, and everyone's entitled to their own opinion.
What I do find harmful, however, is the collective outrage being expressed over the idea of any historical record even mentioning anything about the Confederacy and how the blacks were being used as slaves. As of this writing, there have been plenty of news reports saying that Confederate statues have been taken down just because they represented people from the Confederacy. Why? Because they reacted to it as if even having them around automatically hinted at some vague approval of the Confederate ideals in today's society. What will taking them down prove other than to show just how prone we are to cower when confronted with our country’s own past vices and bigotries?
What do you think we deserve to be as Americans? Schoolchildren discovering bits and pieces of our history and figuring out how to tolerate and process the imperfections embedded in our nation's blood? Or convicts attempting to clean up evidence of a crime scene in the hopes of being seen by others as completely guiltless? Nobody is perfect, but that’s nothing we should be ashamed of. The purposes of these historical records, the statues, and even this movie, to name a few, are to remind us of what went on in our past, how we became the America that we are today, and how the Confederacy functioned, flawed as its structural systems were. In fact, just recently, HBO Max temporarily pulled the film from its service before reinstalling it with a disclaimer message and accompanying videos explaining some of the more questionable parts of the movie. I think that any kind of censorship such as this, even if it was just to soften the blows concerning whatever moments could raise some eyebrows, is just an insult to history, and to this movie.
Getting back to the movie itself, something else that completely impressed me about Gone with the Wind was just how ahead of its time it was. For starters, it was able to be filmed entirely in color from beginning to end, and as I said, the results are astonishing. For another, while most films were around two hours long, this one was four, complete with an intermission. This was in 1939, and this was long before films that were anywhere between three and four hours long became the norm by the 50s and 60s. Also, we can’t forget just how complex and interesting Scarlett was as a character, despite her being a woman. Back then, I think most ladies in fiction were treated slightly like second-class citizens, too, and were often treated as nothing more than token wives or girlfriends, or barely had a say in any given situation. Here, Scarlett stood on her own two feet, fought her way through poverty during the Reconstruction, and even got to manage a lumbermill. Back then, people would’ve thought of her decision to run a lumbermill outrageous, as did the remaining Confederates in the movie, but nowadays, all we are prone to do is admire her perseverance and strength to keep moving forward and survive in a time of poverty and societal restructuring. And that was clearly before interesting female main leads were cool.
Let's jump ship again and get back to how the movie portrayed the African-Americans, because that's what the movie also did right. Notwithstanding the controversial portrayal of their content with their slavery, this movie managed to cast actual African-Americans to play their intended roles. Back then, people might have been prone to portray the African-Americans in a racist manner, such as with blackface portrayals. Here, the movie, especially thanks to Hattie McDaniel, was one step closer than all the rest to represent African-Americans as who they were: human beings who were just like you and me, regardless of skin color.
And of course, you have Rhett Butler‘s infamous final line with Scarlett before leaving. For over three decades, the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, was put into practice, and prohibited any movie from showing any case of sex, nudity, graphic violence, or from having the characters say any obscenities. But then, Selznick, thanks to exploiting a loophole in the code that said that any line deriving from the book can be used, as well as paying $50,000 to keep the line he sought out, was able to let Rhett Butler rebuke Scarlett’s pleas with:
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
When Butler said that line in the theaters, the audience’s jaws just dropped to the floor. They just couldn't have believed it. Saying a line like that back then was just as scandalous as it is nowadays to drop the F-bomb.
I honestly don't know what else to say about Gone with the Wind without further talking it to death. I was just as swept off my feet as everyone else. It already felt meticulously written when I read the book, but to say that this movie did it absolute justice might be an understatement. It is just a masterpiece from every angle.
I promise you, whatever your thoughts on it will become, this tour de force of the Old South will definitely blow you away.
My Rating: A+
Word to the Wise
Notice how the movie is rated G. You would think that because the movie was released in 1939, when movies were expected to be much cleaner and softer in terms of harsher material, that this would be a harmless little family movie about war, right? Yeah, don't let the G-rating fool you. Unlike the animated Mulan, which painted a softer, more indirect look at war, this movie, despite not focusing on the battlefield, demonstrated the severity of the consequences of war, including how much damage that can leave to anyone who was not in the battlefield. Mulan may not have sugarcoated it, but this movie sugarcoated it even less by comparison.
Also, despite it being released at a time when the Hays Code was still active, this still pushed the boundaries in terms of what would've been allowed in a movie. Besides the use of profanity in Rhett's final line, it also showed some bits of explicit material you wouldn't expect to find in a film released at this time period. For example, when Scarlett shot the invading US soldier with her gun, you can see a puddle of blood around that guy's head, plus a streak of it as his corpse was being dragged around. And, in the same scene, when Melanie undressed so Scarlett can use her gown to mop up the blood with, for a split second, you can catch a glimpse of one of Melanie's bare breasts. Definitely not something you'd see in a G-rated film nowadays.
And let's not forget the implied rape that went on between Scarlett and Rhett. Rhett, in a drunken rage, told Scarlett how he'd tear into her if he could, and then, when they were at the bottom of the stairs, he grabbed her with her arms flailing against him, went upstairs, and the next morning, Scarlett woke up with a big grin on her face. The Hays Code would normally have prevented any mere implications of rape in a movie at that time, but this was one of the more notable exceptions.
If this movie was rerated today, I can see this being either a strong PG or even a light PG-13.
Hunt, K. (2018, March 02). Hollywood Codebreakers: 'Gone With the Wind' Goes on Trial. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@kristinhunt/hollywood-codebreakers-gone-with-the-wind-goes-on-trial-c2ed7b65aa68
Northup, S. (2013). Twelve Years a Slave: (Movie Tie-In). New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated.