Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 9, 2009)
Batten down the hatches: it's time for me to confront Gone With the Wind, the ultimate "chick flick". Regular readers may know of my lack of affection for that genre, and no film comes with the baggage attached to this one. The movie is the most financially successful picture ever; in figures adjusted for inflation, Wind's US gross surpasses one billion dollars. It also has many adherents who think it's the best film ever made as well. The American Film Institute almost agrees, as Wind winds up sixth on their list of the 100 greatest movies. This makes it difficult to view the flick without many prejudgments.
Actually, part of that job was already done for me, since I initially saw Wind more than a 20 years ago. I'd long resisted any urge to see the movie just because I couldn't imagine what pleasures it would hold for me, especially considering its extreme length. Almost four hours of melodramatic mush didn't sound too enticing.
However, when I was in college, I had a friend named Tara (really!) who adored the film. (Yes, I believe her parents named her after the movie’s house.) When the film played one night at the student union, I had nothing better to do so I finally consented to take in a showing.
To my surprise, I thought it was a pretty watchable movie. I can't say that it really boiled my potatoes, but it was much more entertaining and compelling than I'd expected. Sure, it went on too long, but it kept my interest for the most part.
Years down the road, I finally decided to see it again via its DVD release. Despite the success of my initial screening, I can't say I was too excited about this prospect. I kept a lingering memory of my enjoyable viewing from back in the Eighties, but not enough specific reasons for that attitude to make the idea truly exciting.
Once again, I found the film to be mildly pleasurable, though I can't say I fully appreciate its appeal. Wait - scratch that. I do think I know why this melodrama still wins so many hearts. It's pure soap opera from start to finish. We watch Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) toy with her many suitors as she pines for her one true love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). However, Ashley cares for another woman, sickly-sweet do-gooder Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), so she jumps on other beaus in pathetic attempts to provoke his jealousy. Not until she hooks up with manly-man Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) does Scarlett meet her match, but even then, she remains unhappy and longs for Ashley's bland charms.
All that and the Civil War, too! Clearly the audience for this flick is the same that goes after goopy tragedies, and I've never really understood their appeal. Maybe people just like to have a good cry now and then. Wind possesses more strengths than most of those, but it's still a melodrama at its heart, and a fairly shameless one at that.
At the risk of sounding sexist, I can't help but think that many women love this movie because it shows a flirty young babe who suffers and eventually gets her comeuppance. Without spoiling the plot, Wind ends somewhat ambiguously, but it doesn't conclude particularly happily. Scarlett pays for her sins.
Scarlett clearly has some positives, as she's a very determined and forceful woman who never gives up no matter how difficult the circumstances become. However, these are outweighed by the fact she's a whiny, nasty piece of work. She baldly uses men and even marries some suckers just to wheedle out them what she wants, whether money or status. She appears to possess absolutely no convictions whatsoever other than "Me, me, me" and she never displays any genuine regret for what she does. Sure, she's sorry by the end, but that seems more the result of her crummy situation than any sort of moral reckoning.
Leigh does a very good job in the role, as she nicely portrays Scarlett's journey from coquettish Southern belle to down-on-her-luck survivor and back again, but she can't make the character likable. Granted, I don't think anyone could, since Scarlett is such a bad person. However, I always felt as though we were supposed to care for Scarlett and worry about what happened to her. Not a chance - if anyone says they actually rooted for her success, they're lying, as we all wanted to see her get her just desserts.
Gable is strong as her opposite number. Rhett also seems like a jerk most of the time, but he's allowed a much greater degree of humanity than is Scarlett. Even when she has a daughter, Scarlett barely seems concerned with anything other than her own beauty, whereas Rhett fully gives his life over to his child. He also remains maddeningly in love with Scarlett, although she's too stupid to realize what a good thing she has. Gable portrays the different layers of the character adeptly and makes him more sympathetic than he probably should be.
As our two main supporting characters, Howard and de Havilland become sunk by the one-dimensional nature of their roles. De Havilland at least fights her way to bring some complexity to Melanie, though not much can rise to the surface in such a unilaterally good and pure personality. Melanie exists to show a contrast with the mercenary Scarlett, but the part goes too far and seems extremely unrealistic.
Howard is probably the worst thing about Wind, at least in regard to its main characters. For one, I never could figure out why this son of the South spoke with a British accent, but Gable doesn't exactly sound like he's from Kentucky either, so I'll leave that problem alone. Of greater concern is the utter lack of charisma he displays. This is a guy so hot that he has two babes vying for him, and dopey Scarlett hangs onto the dream of him until almost the bitter end.
Why? He's not particularly handsome, he doesn't seem very bright or personable, and he has the charisma of a dirty sponge. Part of the problem comes from the writing, as the script could at least have offered some reasons for his appeal, but a lot of the confusion stems from Howard's exceedingly bland performance. His work creates a severe weakness in the film from which it never really recovers, at least when we look at the Ashley/Scarlett/Melanie triangle.
Although these flaws should have been obvious at the time of the film's release, some others appear that seem evident mainly to changing attitudes. I was rather startled to see the degree to which Wind glorified the Old South, and it didn't just praise the mint juleps. We're led to see the plantation lifestyle of gentility and elegance as the ultimate in living, until those dirty, thieving northerners came along and ruined it all.
I'm surprised the movie doesn't generate more attention for its backwards politics. Some condemn films like Birth of a Nation for their racism. You don't hear much of that talk about Wind even though it clearly espouses very anti-black and "status quo" viewpoints. The film presents the attitude that everyone was happy and all was well in the south under the slave system until emancipation ruined it all.
While I'm sure the Civil War did strongly alter the normal course of events for rich white people in the south, I'm not of the opinion this was a bad thing. In fact, I think it's pretty good. Sure, troubles existed for a while due to the upheaval, but that's inevitable; progress doesn't always come smoothly and without commotion. Never does the tone of Wind indicate that the changes were anything other than negative, though, and I find that attitude distasteful to say the least.
Obviously the portrayals of black characters aren't exactly positive either, though at least Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) musters some respect from her own strength. Many will be put off by the typical "yassum" and "massa" dialect of the black participants, but I won't strongly slam that, as it seems historically accurate. After all, it's not as if actual slaves in the 1860s spoke the Queen's English with perfect diction. The most unfortunate aspect of the portrayals stems from the fact these kinds of roles were all that was available for black actors of the day, but that doesn't make the work itself especially egregious, though Butterfly McQueen's shrieking really goes over the top.
If you can get past the backward politics of Gone With the Wind, you'll find it to be a more enjoyable picture. Of course, if you could get past the fascism of the Nazis, I'm sure you'd have found Germany in the 1930s to be a pleasant place to live. Perhaps it's unfair of me to place the attitudes of Wind in that same category, but I must acknowledge that I disliked the reactionary position it presents.
The attitudes don't ruin the movie, however, as they largely stay to the background. After all, Wind is mainly a sudsy melodrama about young people in love. The Civil War backdrop exists largely to give the plot a reason to make Scarlett sink to the depths of despair. I respect the art of Wind, as it's a solidly-made film that manages to remain fairly entertaining over nearly four hours, which is no mean feat. However, that doesn't mean I have to like it, and between the racial attitudes and the annoying characters, it becomes a less-than-scintillating experience.