Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)


(director: Victor Fleming; screenwriters: Sidney Howard/based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell; cinematographers: Ernest Haller/Ray Rennahan; editors: Hal Kern/James Newcom; music: Max Steiner; cast: Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Vivian Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Lesley Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Alicia Rhett (India Wilkes), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Harry Davenport (Doctor Meade), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat), Oscar Polk (Pork), Eddie Anderson (Uncle Peter); Runtime: 222; MPAA Rating: G; producer: David O. Selznick; MGM; 1939)

“Possibly the best loved movie spectacle ever.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

GWTW represents the best of Hollywood at its most ambitious and epic and lavish, filmed during the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Possibly the best loved movie spectacle ever. This critic-proof film despite the slow pace of its second half and its close to fours hours length and its stereotyping of blacks, cannot be denied its greatness. Also, elitists might not fess up to liking such a pulpish narrative, but the film’s universal and timeless appeal cannot be denied. It is based on Margaret Mitchell’s only book that she worked on between 1926 and 1929 and didn’t show to an editor its 1,000-plus pages for six years. By the time of the film’s release, Mitchell’s popular novel had surpassed 1,500,000 in sales. Ironically, Mitchell died in a car crash in Atlanta during the 1940s.

Selznick paid $50,000 for the rights to the book. George Cukor was the film’s original director but after shooting the opening scene was replaced by Victor Fleming. When Fleming fell sick (supposedly with a nervous breakdown) Sam Wood took over, but Fleming resumed his position after his convalescence. Selznick brought in a number of uncredited screenwriters in addition to the credited Sidney Howard. Among them were Edwin Justin Mayer, John Van Druten, Ben Hecht, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jo Swerling. For the part of Scarlett O’Hara, David O. Selznick issued a national talent search. The very prospect of an Englishwoman playing the part of an American Southern belle at first upset the southerners, but that she performed so well made the criticism go away. The Rhett Butler part was written for Gable, who before he took the part had some doubts if he could live up to the part’s bigger-than-life expectations. But his role became an unforgettable classic and made him a Hollywood icon forever.

GWTW won nine Oscars and also won special academy recognition for production designer William Cameron Menzies’s outstanding contribution. It was the first film to ever credit a production designer–previously, the role of the production designer was held by the studio’s art department head, who oversaw all the films in production.

Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy–the first Academy Award given to an African American.

At the time there were only 7 Technicolor cameras in existence, and producer David O’Selznick had them all — equipment he used effectively to create a tremendous splash of color. Selznick spared no expenses and the film came with an enormous, for the time, $3.7 million budget. For 25 years after its release, GWTW was the most successful box office picture in the 20th century grossing some $192 million. It still remains as one of the all-time highest-grossing movies.

It would be a mistake to read GWTW as a lesson in history, as it romanticizes the slave-owning south and feebly caricatures Reconstruction. But it greatly pleases with its many “historical” set-pieces, in particular the burning of Atlanta. But more than history, this is mainly a passionate romance story of hot-tempered, self-absorbed, part-Irish Southern beauty Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her relationship with the equally headstrong Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

GWTW opens in April of 1861, at the palatial southern estate of Tara, in Atlanta, where Scarlett first learns that the self-satisfied gentleman she fancies, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), plans to marry his “mealy-mouthed” genteel cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Despite warnings from her father (Thomas Mitchell) and her loyal servant Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett intends to beg Ashley to change his mind at an upcoming barbecue at Twelve Oaks. When alone with Ashley, she is told that he is attracted to her but feels Melanie would make him a better wife. This is witnessed by the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), accused of being a wartime profiteer and recognized as the black sheep of a wealthy Charleston family, who immediately falls for the spirited and sexy Scarlett, as he recognizes in her similar qualities he possesses: “we’re bad lots, both of us.”

The film for the most part follows the doings of the aforementioned foursome against the backdrop of the Civil War and the end of slavery and a way of southern plantation life. Scarlett remains in love with Ashley, but he won’t leave his wife. Melanie loves her husband and befriends Scarlett, who unexpectedly becomes her best friend. Rhett can’t get over the hots he has for Scarlett, and though he knows she’s attracted to him she goes through two marriages before they get married. Ultimately, after the war, when Captain Butler returns to a ruined south, he has finally had enough and walks out of her life. She asks what she’s supposed to do without him. In the film’s most celebrated line, Gable replies: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The extraordinary beauty and cruelty of Vivian Leigh and the dashing romantic and heartfelt electric performance of Clark Gable, reaches most of us in an old-fashioned movie way that doesn’t translate as art but as popular culture. Which is undoubtedly the reason the film is not on many of the Ten Best lists of film critics.