I have never read the book by Margaret Mitchell-this is a critique solely of the film. After watching Gone With the Wind for the umpteenth time recently I am finally able to say without a shadow of doubt that it is a far from great movie. A huge undertaking. A phenomenon, for sure. But a film classic? Hmmm . . .
GWtW is on many lists as one of the best movies ever made:
Voted the number one movie was CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, which he directed, produced, wrote and starred in at the age of 25. The rest of the top ten, in order, are: CASABLANCA (#2), THE GODFATHER (#3), GONE WITH THE WIND (#4), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (#5), THE WIZARD OF OZ (#6), THE GRADUATE (#7), ON THE WATERFRONT (#8), SCHINDLER’S LIST (#9) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (#10). From the American Film Institute
I think #4, GWtW and #5, Lawrence of Arabia are epics and definite must-sees for any film buff, but both fall short of making it onto my greatest films list. Apart from a few shots of Peter O’Toole in the desert, his eyes the color of the sky and his hair the color of sand, and its magnificent score, the rest of Lawrence of Arabia is long forgotten. There is a difference between a great movie to watch (The Ten Commandments, e.g.) and whether it also qualifies as a great piece of cinema. At least that’s what all those film theory books I read in college said and I agree. Plus, no Hitchcock in the top ten? Already the AFI list is shot. There are plenty of movies I adore, but only a few of them I think have crossed over into the great art category. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain, definitely.
I am not resistant to all of GWtW‘s charms. There is an amazing crane shot of Scarlett making her way through the thousands of wounded soldiers. Olivia de Havilland gives a truly great performance as Melanie and is the only reason I have toyed with someday reading the book. Clark Gable is Clark Gable, and that is always a good thing. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Vivien Leigh does the best she can with a truly impossible character, but her beauty and that one raised eyebrow can only do so much.
Why am I being so resistant to calling GWtW a great film? Because its plot drags it down, down, down. Underneath all the sets and costumes it is the typical Hollywood romance where men and women do or say impossibly dumb things to keep each other apart for the sake of dragging this thing out for hours (and in the case of GWtW, for hours and hours and hours and hours.) I hate that. Don’t get me wrong, much of the movie is fun and entertaining. Scarlett’s oblivious cruelty. Rhett’s amusement at everything she does (before he marries her). Any scene with Olivia de Havilland. Mammy and the red petticoat. “I don’t know nuffin’ ’bout birfin’ no babies!” But there are also all of the horrible plot points that surround these scenes. Scarlett’s stupidity about Ashley & Rhett. The fate of Bonnie Blue Butler. Scarlett’s fall down the stairs. Yeesh. Leslie Howard has been great in many things, but apart from looking great in A-1 Hollywood lighting, his Ashley Wilkes is insufferable and it’s inexplicable why anyone would want him.
So why does GWtW show up so high on that AFI list? I have to go back to phenomenon. GWtW should be remembered for its box-office power and it’s sheer length and ambitions. For Hattie McDaniel winning an Oscar. For the fuss about selecting its leading lady. But all these things can’t help it through those other, painful scenes. At least with a television viewing you can get up and walk away through the dull parts. I remember seeing GWtW in revival in a big theater in New York many years ago, thinking that maybe I’d like it more, finally experiencing it as it was meant to be seen, rather than cut up by commercials as I had originally seen it on television as a kid. But nope, I still only liked what I liked and really didn’t like what I didn’t like. And an intermission was very necessary. It was a test of endurance to view the movie in a theater.
Rather than best film, I prefer how TCM is listing GWtW (and other films)-as an influential classic:
7. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
If one film epitomizes the Hollywood blockbuster, it’s Gone With the Wind. Made in Hollywood’s annus mirabilis, 1939, it remains the most popular film of a sterling crop. Not only has it sold more tickets than any other American made film, but with its box-office adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing film of all time. Something in the tale of the Southern belle fighting to save her beloved Tara has struck a chord for generations of audiences, from the U.S. of World War II to post-war Europe to Japan in the ’80s. Scarlett O’ Hara has inspired a legion fiery females caught in the sweep of history, like Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Gone With the Wind is the definitive producer’s film. David O. Selznick defied conventional wisdom to purchase the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, personally supervised every detail of the film and spearheaded three years of publicity to raise public interest to a fever pitch. He spent the rest of his life trying-and failing-to top it. And decades of Hollywood blockbusters have drawn on his work to create and sell romantic dreams writ large on the screen.
Will I ever watch GWtW again? Probably. It’s impossible not to enjoy watching Vivien Leigh transform from spoiled brat to strong woman of Tara and back again. I will at least stay tuned until Bonnie Blue takes her fateful ride. That’s when the film goes downhill for me. But if you ask me to compile my greatest films list you’ll see Victor Fleming’s other film from 1939, The Wizard of Oz, not GWtW. Clark Gable will turn up via It Happened One Night. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Olivia de Havilland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or maybe The Adventures of Robin Hood. All great movies, and great movies to watch, too.