Nearing its half-century mark, “Gone With the Wind” (at the Nuart through Tuesday) is greater than ever, and not just because its color and sound have been superbly restored by Turner Entertainment. The older it gets, and we with it, the more we’re able to see in it. As few American films have, “Gone With the Wind” succeeds both as historical epic and as intimate drama, telling of the tempestuous Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, headstrong Southern beauty who resolves to survive the ravages of the Civil War only to discover the high price that her ruthless determination exacts.
In design, tone and especially in its promotion, “Gone With the Wind” has the image of being the most romantic of screen sagas, but it is at heart an unsparingly realistic depiction of a struggle for survival. Yet Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett and Clark Gable’s Rhett reside in our collective unconscious as among the greatest of screen lovers. It was producer David O. Selznick’s genius not only to be so true to the spirit of Margaret Mitchell’s novel that he seems true to the letter as well (not, in fact, always the case) but also to allow the film to become all things to all people. When you’re in your 20s you come away sure that Scarlett is going to get Rhett back; when you’re twice that you’re pretty sure she isn’t, and what’s more, you realize that’s not Mitchell’s point--it is Scarlett’s enduring strength.
“Gone With the Wind” endures and deepens with the passing of time because Scarlett and Rhett are as modern as its open ending. Rhett, the dashing and virile blockade runner from Charleston, insists on how much alike they are; they’re “both bad lots. We’re selfish and shrewd, and we call things by their right names.” The source of their misery as husband and wife comes from the fact that they’re not that much alike at all: Rhett has a self-awareness, a capacity for reflection that Scarlett entirely lacks. Rhett may be a devil with the ladies and be pessimistic about the Southern cause, but at heart he is more gallant, noble and therefore vulnerable than he lets on. The man has a code, whereas Scarlett, feeling bitterly betrayed by the ideals of the Old South, proceeds with an unbridled ruthlessness, sustained by her illusion of love for the aristocratic Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
Gable and Leigh seem so born to play Rhett and Scarlett that it’s easy to overlook how accomplished their performances are.
Yet as time goes on it becomes clearer and clearer how heroic are the performances of Howard and Olivia De Havilland. He makes Ashley seem a passive intellectual rather than a weakling, De Havilland makes Ashley’s wife Melanie a woman, who in Rhett’s words, possesses “too much honor in her to conceive of dishonor in someone else.” In lesser hands, Melanie would surely have seemed a silly, one-dimensional fool. Scarlett and Rhett are abundantly flesh-and-blood people, eager and able to make the most of the opportunities of the cruel and vulgar period of reconstruction whereas Ashley and Melanie must embody and uphold the pride of the Old South in defeat. Yet Ashley and Melanie are as real as Scarlett and Rhett, and the interactions of all four give “Gone With the Wind” its remarkable complexity of character.
According to various sources, director George Cukor, who spent a great deal of time in preparation, was able to define the key characters and their relationships before being replaced by the faster-paced Victor Fleming, who himself was at one point temporarily replaced by Sam Wood. (Actually, Cukor continued to coach both Leigh and De Havilland in secret throughout the production.) Many writers besides the credited Sidney Howard worked with Selznick, who is surely, indeed emphatically, the film’s auteur.
To say that “Gone with the Wind” is a great film of scope and vision and a national treasure is not to say that it is a perfect film. Its first half proceeds with such breathtaking dispatch and economy, taking us from the outbreak of war through the destruction of the Old South and ending with Scarlett’s famous “As God as my witness” declaration, that the second half seems a bit protracted, concentrating as it does on the unhappy domestic life of Scarlett and Rhett. Yet in fairness it is only after the war, with all its horror, excitement and distraction, that the characters have the time to come to terms with themselves and each other, and it is what happens to them in their drastically, irrevocably changed world that gives “Gone With the Wind” its richness and substance.
The contributions of production designer William Cameron Menzies, art director Lyle Wheeler (one of the few surviving key personnel from either side of the camera), cinematographer Ernest Haller, his Technicolor associates Ray Rennahan and Wilfrid M. Cline, costume designer Walter Plunkett, supervising film editor Hal Kern and special effects expert Jack Cosgrove and many others are timeless in their artistry.
Not so in the instance of composer Max Steiner. (I know this is heresy in many quarters.) Steiner’s “Tara” theme is rightly beloved, but his score is relentless in its distracting insistence during intimate scenes--the style at the time. Frankly, it’s Steiner’s music rather than the dialogue that threatens to reduce certain sections of the film to the level of the anguished women’s pictures of the period. (One is reminded of Bette Davis’ remark that in “Dark Victory,” another memorable 1939 release, “Max Steiner had me dead before I reached the top of the stairs.”)
One of Selznick’s most crucial accomplishments is the treatment of blacks. He managed to be true to the patriarchal view of Mitchell, a Southern gentlewoman, while not allowing the romantic tone of his film to seem in any way an endorsement of slavery. Indeed, Hattie McDaniel’s perceptive and outspoken Mammy, one of the highlights of the film, is in the tradition of the clever servant who can see through his or her masters’ motives. As for Butterfly McQueen’s child-like Prissy with her much-quoted “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies,” critic Andrew Sarris has argued that in this ignorant, helpless creature there could scarcely be a stronger criticism of slavery.
Several years ago LACMA had a public screening of Selznick’s pristine personal print of “Gone With the Wind,” which was of course in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Obviously, this is the ideal way to see the film, but the current wide screen restoration (1.66:1) is a vast improvement over the 1967 70-millimeter release that resulted in countless cropped heads and a muddy granular look. After half a century, “Gone With the Wind” (rated G) is clearly as much a survivor as its heroine.