Friday, May 4, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: Gone With the Wind (1939)

Christ, where to start? Where to start? Um, Gone With the Wind is a huge fucking deal. Everything you would ever want to know about it is already out there, floating around in cyberspace. There are thousands, maybe even millions of reviews on this film that discuss its lengthy search for a lead actress, its tumultuous production with multiple directors, and its highest grossing movie adjusted for inflation-ness. And maybe I should write about all that, but frankly my dear, I don't give damn. YOU'VE heard it before and I'M not interested in rehashing common movie knowledge.

Let me state here and now that Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite, favorite movies of all time; easily in my top ten it is. But for this Best Picture winner retrospective I'm going to work my little ass off to not just gush and gush or get sentimental and personal. Therefore, this review might seem a little clinical. But fear not, dear readers, for one day I will write another post for my neglected Jordyn's Favorite Movies series. That will most likely be years in the future so this will have to do for now.

Gone With the Wind is based on Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize winning (our second of four Pulitzer Prize winning source material BP's) and only novel of the same name. Picture it: April 1861. The gorgeous southern cotton plantation of Tara. Raven haired southern belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) shamelessly flirts with a pair of twins and learns beloved neighbor boy Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is going to announce his engagement to his sweet and mousy cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), at the barbecue the following day. This simply won't do for Scarlett. She decides to confess her long simmering love for Ashley hoping he will redact his marriage agreement with Melanie. He does not. In fact he rejects her outright and dashing rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) overhears the entire episode, much to Scarlett's humiliation. Then the War Between the States is declared and Scarlett marries Melanie's brother Charles (Rand Brooks) to get back at Ashley and tie herself to Melanie. goes on. For twelve years. The important thing to remember is Scarlett loves Ashley who loves Melanie who loves Ashley. However, Ashley is sexually attracted to Scarlett but wants to remain loyal to his wife. Meanwhile Rhett is hot for Scarlett (and loves her too) and she refuses to admit or recognize her mutual feelings for him. She also marries two men she does not love during the course of the film: the aforementioned Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), both of who had their own sweethearts...Also, a prostitute named Belle Watling (Ona Munson) is in love with Rhett.

You know what? Here's a graph:

Yep, sort of like an episode of Jerry Springer. Despite all the war and slavery and cotton picking and carpet baggers, at its heart, GWTW is the tale of a love quadrangle...or more accurately, a love nonagan, but for all intents and purposes a quadrangle; two men and two women, hopelessly trapped in a mish-mash of feelings and complicated relationships. (And if you want to get more bare bones, it's the story of a woman loving the wrong man for twelve years...but let's not get into that.)

I could endlessly discuss these relationships: Rhett's hatred towards Ashley, his respect for Melanie. Melanie's blind love to Scarlett and her acceptance of Rhett. Ashley's indifference for Rhett and burning desire for Scarlett. And then Scarlett's misguided "love" for Ashley and utter ignorance towards Rhett and her hatred, respect, adoration, and love for Melanie. As monumental as Gone With the Wind is as technical achievement, I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why anyone would want to watch it if they didn't care about the petty romantic entanglements. Honestly, that is what drives the film. For your sake, dear reader, I will stop here and go onto something less emotional. Besides, I need to save something for my other review.

Gone With the Wind is often accused of romanticizing the Old South and it is, of course, guilty. Hell, even the opening title card wistfully states:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...
But answer me this: What historical film doesn't romanticize its time period?

That rebuttal doesn't suffice, I know, because Gone With the Wind involves issues of RACE.

I am pro-GWTW so am totally going to defend it. But first and foremost, just in case there is any confusion: We at Popped Density and all its subsidiaries and affiliates believe slavery is wrong. Subjugation of anyone is wrong. But it happened. That can't be helped now, and I would rather have a movie that presents slavery in all its nastiness than have a movie that ignores it. It's important to note that GWTW is not told from the slaves' perspective, nor is it even about the slaves. It is about Scarlett O'Hara and her endeavors, romantic and non-romantic. I like to think the portrayal of said slaves is how Scarlett would have seen them, for better or worse. But, that is just my little ol' interpretation and perhaps not that of David O. Selznick & Co.

The character of Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) is brought up time and time again, so let's address her, shall we? Prissy, for those of you who haven't seen this movie, is fucking irritating and a perfectly horrendous example of stereotypical 1930's race representation. Earlier in the film, Prissy claims she knows how to assist in childbirth and that she will help Scarlett deliver Melanie's baby. The day comes when Melanie goes into labor and it turns out Prissy "don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" so Scarlett smacks her.

This scene is always shown or discussed out of context and I am here to defend Scarlett's actions because:
  1. Prissy outright lied for no discernible reason.
  2. This is the 1860's. Childbirth is a matter of life and death. Without proper knowledge of the process, both Melanie her baby could die.
  4. Scarlett smacks everyone; Ashley, Rhett, her sister Suellen, and she beats that poor horse to death on her way home to Tara.
Sorry for the digression, but I felt the need to delve into that scene a little deeper. Prissy had it coming, young or old, black or white, male or female, I don't care. I would have smacked her too.

ANYWAY, most everyone agrees that Prissy is a dark spot (no pun intended) in the world of Gone With the Wind. On the other hand, people often praise Mammy and specifically the performance of Hattie McDaniel. Once again, I am here to make a rebuttal.

Hattie McDaniel, the first ever minority actor to win an Oscar. For some reason, people lurvvve this performance and I don't understand why. Really. I just don't. To me it is not that special. Unlike Prissy, Mammy has a personality and intelligence and heart. She is a good character, but at the same time, she is a stock character who, thanks to GWTW's epic length, gets a lot of screen time. Before and after GWTW, McDaniel continued to play similar characters including a role in Disney's infamous Song of the South.

1. Mom Beck in The Little Colonel (1935) 
2. Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939) 
3. Aunt Tempy in Song of the South (1946)

I could be off-base with this but I've always seen McDaniel's Oscar win as a way of white Hollywood rewarding a black actress who "knows her place"; playing slaves and maids who's sole purpose is to serve her white superiors with no thoughts of her own unmentioned family. I wouldn't say that's all the Oscar is for. Hattie McDaniel does the best with what she is given but I certainly don't think it's better than Olivia de Havilland's turn as Melanie or even Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wuthering Heights...but that's an argument for another day*.

So, Racism was just a part of 1930's America. Naturally, it would show up in the films of the day. But many ask why and how Gone With the Wind, with its romanticized Old South, can still be so popular in our enlightened, politically correct society?

There is no definitive answer to this, but here's my theory: Before and even after the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood has made several films/television miniseries that turned the antebellum south into the United States' medieval stand-in. See, American history is just not "romantic" or "regal" in the way European history is. We have no royalty. We have no nobility. America was made up of the descendants of boring puritan stock or rebel upstarts wanting to get away from all that British stuffery. For whatever reason, the South became the site of those wanting to preserve some of the Honor and Finery of Europe. As the North became industrialized and the West remained wild (for a bit), the South represented constancy and civility. Things just weren't changing down there, much like the millennium long stagnancy of the Middle Ages.

Humanity is inherently nostalgic for some reason. As Rhett Butler says, "I've always had a weakness for lost causes once they're really lost." And that's it. The Old South is gone and it will never come back. That's a good thing, all things considered. People just want what they can't have so instead of enslaving an entire race and living off their misery again, we can simply pop in a film and pretend for a few hours. You could also make the argument about the South suffering and rising from the ashes. Because you know how we all love to see Humpty Dumpty fall and try to put himself back together again.

I'll end this review with one last thing that is unrelated to most everything I've written above. Whilst watching GWTW, I was delighted by the whole story being in one movie. That seems like an obvious statement, but in this age of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I couldn't help but be a bit comforted by the simplicity of it all. Oh, to live in a time when they made you stay at the theater for four hours straight...Oh, to live in a time of Overtures, Intermissions, and Exit Music...Oh, to live in a time when you didn't have to wait a whole year to see the conclusion of a movie...Alas, look for it only in old movies, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a format gone with the wind...

My First Time With...Gone With the Wind
I was 10 years old. I had recently moved to lovely Oakesdale, Washington. My dear mother bought it for some reason so I watched it. I loved it immediately and drew pictures of Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler in her green muslin dress instead of doing my fractions.

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)
  • Best Director - Victor Fleming 
  • Best Actor - Clark Gable 
  • Best Actress - Vivien Leigh
  • Best Supporting Actress - Olivia de Havilland 
  • Best Supporting Actress - Hattie McDaniel 
  • Best Adapted Screenplay 
  • Best Cinematography, Color 
  • Best Film Editing 
  • Best Visual Effects 
  • Best Art Direction 
  • Best Original Score 
  • Best Sound Recording 

1939 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen...followed by my opinion in 10 words or less.)
  • Dark Victory 
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips 
  • Love Affair 
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
  • Ninotchka 
  • Of Mice and Men 
  • Stagecoach 
  • The Wizard of Oz - A part of everyone's childhood which transcends Oscar.
  • Wuthering Heights - GWTW's black and white lil' sis. 

What I Learned From...Gone With the Wind
Like minded people should be together.

I know I didn't really get into this lesson, because it's more of a "Jordyn's Favorite Movies" argument, but Scarlett O'Hara would have had a much easier life if she realized the right man was in front of her all along.

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