Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Movie Review: Gone with the Wind 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition

Beware, spoilers ahead.

Fact: Gone with the Wind won nine Academy Awards in 1940, including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hattie McDaniel as Mammy), Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best Picture.  Fact: Gone with the Wind was nominated for an additional five Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Clark Gable as Rhett Butler), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton), and Best Music, Original Score (Max Steiner).  Fact: Gone with the Wind won the 1989 People’s Choice Award for Favorite All-Time Motion Picture.  Fact: Gone with the Wind is still one of the most celebrated classic films in the history of the industry.  The portrayal of Civil War South, the costume design, and the technical achievements in colorization and use of coordinated equipment, to this day, still affect filmmaking, fashion, and literature, and that’s not the half of its influence!
But why?  Sure, I’ll give the special effects, set, location, costuming, film editing, music, et cetera, kudos to the sky, but the story itself is so depressing.  I’d never seen it before this release.  I’d heard about it plenty, though.  My mother warned me that I’d get annoyed with Scarlett O’Hara’s voice; my friends in college raved about the romance and epic quality of the film; Scarlett herself was discussed at length as either the most cold-hearted, mercenary human on the planet, or the epitome of a driven, clever, shrewd businesswoman. But no one ever told me that Rhett Butler’s famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” was delivered at the END of the film.  I always thought part of the movie was convincing him to give a damn.
Mammy and Scarlett
Yet when I watched Gone with the Wind yesterday, what struck me most was not the romance, not the glorious plantations, not the horror and devastation of war, and not the grand scope of the story.  It was Scarlett herself, her interactions with all the people around her, as a tragic figure in true Shakespearean form.  All Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists start at a height and gradually fall, or get torn down, to depths they didn’t know they could plunge.  Lear was the king of Britain, but when he gave his kingdom to his daughters, they stripped him of his entourage, his dignity, and his sanity.  MacBeth was the favorite of a Danish king, but a prophecy and an ambitious wife enticed him to murder.  Titus Andronicus was the mightiest general of the Roman army, but he chose the wrong successor as emperor, and a prisoner queen took revenge on him and his family, even so far as to make him cut off his own hand.  Hamlet lost friends, family, and his lover.  Othello strangled the woman he loved.  All of these, and practically every other principle character, end up killed by homicide or suicide.  While Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t meet so grisly a fate, she does plummet from majesty to poverty, and then rises from starving waif to wealthy businesswoman only to plummet again, having practically everything stripped from her – her first husband, her home, her family, and her innocence all in the first act, and then her second husband, her friends, her reputation, her unborn child, her daughter, and finally, her third husband, Rhett, in the second act. 
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara Butler
I feel both repulsed by and profoundly sorry for Scarlett.  She seems to expect that people will forgive her no matter what she does.  She treats emotional entanglement with a married man as something romantic and talks of running away with him as though it’s acceptable.  She coerces, cajoles, manipulates, lies, cries, complains, and criticizes throughout the entire film, with only a few moments revealing her true heart.  I think that’s what made me finally pity her.  After all the fear and pain and misery she endured, physical and emotional, she and Rhett constantly allowed their pride to forbid forgiveness.  There’s a moment when Scarlett wakes up in the morning after a night of passion with her husband Rhett, and she’s actually HAPPY about it, but when he comes in, he doesn’t seem to see the light in her eyes and the glow in her face; he sarcastically apologizes for his drunkenness and informs her that he’s leaving for London and taking their daughter with him.  Immediately, the wall of self-preservation comes up to blot out her smile and her laugh.  There’s another moment, when Rhett and the daughter return from London, where Scarlett shows such relief and joy at his return, but he makes a snide comment and the wall is thrown back up.  Conversely, on Rhett’s side, when Scarlett has an accident and miscarries, she grows deliriously ill, and he worries and worries over her, hoping she’ll call for him, but no one ever comes to say she has.  What kills me is that SHE DID CALL; the film shows her tossing and turning and saying his name, but no one actually goes to get him.  I think that may have pissed me off most.  So much of their marital anguish and misunderstanding could have been avoided if one of them actually showed genuine compassion for the other despite his sarcasm or her dramatics.
Ashley Wilks and Scarlett O'Hara
Rhett is also a complex character.  When we first meet him at Twelve Oaks (the Wilks' plantation), he gives off a creepy, greasy, predator-like vibe.  He witnesses the exchange between Scarlett and Ashley and finds it funny.  He pursues Scarlett as soon as she's first widowed, making a spectacle of her (though she quite enjoys it).  He's mercenary and sarcastic and unscrupulous.  When the war reaches Atlanta, he demonstrates courage and sacrifice and finally confesses that he loves Scarlett, though we know from his own admission that he's "not a marrying man."  Later, he tries to take her as his mistress, but she won't have it.  When she's widowed a second time, he doesn't waste time actually marrying her even though he knows she's still madly in love with Ashley.  When he becomes a father, though, I felt like all his protective pretenses fell away and the audience could see who he truly was - an insightful, intelligent businessman who loves to spoil the women in his life.  I disliked him intensely at the beginning because of his flippancy and his disrespect, but ended up wanting him to be happy.
Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton
Frankly, there were only two characters in the whole movie I liked.  The first was Melanie Hamilton, later Melanie Wilks, the woman who marries Ashley Wilks (Leslie Howard), the object of Scarlett’s long-suffering adoration.  She’s the only truly kind person in the entire South, as far as I can tell.  She constantly thinks the best of everyone; treats slaves, prostitutes, socialites, and plantation owners with equal respect; and defends those she loves from slander, even if the slander is true.  I adored her every second she appeared on screen.  Her compassion, gentleness, and wisdom were the perfect foil for Scarlett’s selfishness, conceit, and abuse of others.  I cried hardest when she died.  The second character I liked was Mammy, Scarlett’s sort-of nanny – a house slave.  She’d lived with the O’Hara’s since before Scarlett was born, and when Mr. and Mrs. O’Hara died, she went with Scarlett and her second husband (whom she stole from her sister) to Atlanta and stayed with her even after the second husband died and Scarlett married Rhett.  She always gave Scarlett the piece of her mind she needed to hear, and had no qualms about challenging her on her behavior.  But she was also a mother to Scarlett, a nurse when she fell ill, a protector, and a guardian.
While I dislike Scarlett, I LOATHE Prissy, one of the house slaves from Atlanta.  Her voice is as high-pitched as a child's scream; she blatantly deceives Scarlett about her qualifications; she works at a snail's pace even though circumstances demand urgency; and then on top of everything else, after Scarlett takes charge and delivers Melanie's baby practically by herself, Prissy goes to fetch Rhett to help them escape the city and has the gall to LIE and say SHE delivered the baby and "Scarlett helped a little."  I wanted her to die so much.  At least we only have to put up with her until they get back to Tara (the O'Hara plantation).  She fades into the background and we never have to listen to her again. 
While Gone with the Wind is indeed an impressive cinematographic achievement, especially regarding technical innovation and costume design, the plot and character development are certainly not cheerful.  There are understated and meaningful interactions among the characters, even dexterous commentaries on human morality, survival, and loyalty, but I felt an intense sense of loss as the exit music played.  This movie broke my heart.  Scarlett O’Hara will forever be to me one of the most tragic figures in cinematic history; honestly, I don’t see how she’d ever get Rhett back after all she’d done.  Words would be meaningless to him.  How did he put it? “You think that by saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ all past can be corrected.”  While I’m not a fan of tragedies, Gone with the Wind is still an exquisite movie – the subtlety, the nuance, the gradual accumulation of tension is so profound that at the end, when everything falls to pieces, I wept for Scarlett, not because I liked her, but because I pitied her so much, and pitied the people whose lives she ruined.  It is a masterpiece, and while it won’t be something you’ll often be in the mood to watch, it’s still worth including in your collection.

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