I fully admit that Gone with the Wind (1939) is, unquestionably, a great film. When David O Selznick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel for (a then record) $50,000…he had it in his mind to make a big picture. A huge picture. And that is what he did. It has iconic characters, iconic lines, iconic costumes and iconic music. It is referenced and quoted. It is pastiched and spoofed and sent up. Adjusted for inflation it is the largest box-office success of all time, sweeping over 4.4 billion dollars.
It is a great film. Just not a very good one.
I suppose the problem arises from the slow drift that has pushed those words apart. The fact that, these days, great and good have become so separate. Greatness is a quality in and of itself. Indescribable and unquantifiable. Ethereal and yet immovable. Bestowed unconsciously by the Jungian collective and defended to the bitterest of ends out of nostalgia or love or…something.
There are great works, and in being lifted to these heights they rise above reproach. Above criticism. The Mona Lisa is widely held to be the greatest work of art in the world, and has been for a long time. So long that people don’t really know why anymore, and very few ask. So long that people never stop to wonder: “Where are her eyebrows?”
That’s what this blog is about. The Mona Lisa’s eyebrows.
A preemptive defense of my position: I’m not just a contrarian. I AM a contrarian, I fully own that…but I’m not JUST a contrarian. I’m also not a default “book was better” guy, I hate those guys. Maybe the book was better, maybe it was shit. I haven’t read it. This is just about the film. It’s undeniable qualities, and it’s irreconcilable flaws.
NB. I’m going to do us all a favor and write as if you have all seen this film. I barely have the space, let alone the energy, to summarize the great bloated plot here. And, if you haven’t seen it, I don’t feel I should force the experience on you. It’s four hours long, after all. Watch Lawrence of Arabia (1962) instead, if you have the time…or just turn it off at the intermission.
1) Flaw the First: The Men-Folk.
If you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) had to choose pair of eyebrows for this particular Mona Lisa it would have to be male leads: Leslie Howard and Clark Gable. Shuffling lazily through dialogue they hated and feeling damn awkward doing it. They barely exist. For starters, both are horribly miscast.
Leslie Howard, who hated the film and refused to read the book, was a 45 year old Englishman playing a 24 year old Southern gentleman. His lack of effort apparent in every breath he takes, every crystal syllable of his totally unchanged English accent. He so badly wishes to be somewhere else. He once said:
I hate the damn part. I’m not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.
And you can see that hate in his performance, at times seeming to vomit the words out rather than talk. Ashley Wilkes is famously part-based on Margaret Mitchell’s distant relative Doc Holiday. By the end of the film Howard appears to be in need of one or both of these. Ashley is meant to be symbolic of tragedy of the Civil War. He, more than any other character, represents a lost way of life – and in the ridiculous casting and phoned-in performance the film flattens him to nothing.
And now…Clark Gable. I’m about to say something people will hate me for: Clark Gable is NOT Rhett Butler. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know if it’s the genius, ahead-of-its-time marketing of Selznick or some other socio-psychic machinery at work. But somehow Rhett Butler and Clark Gable got entwined, the movie so famous and the actor so iconic that the two cannot be separated – but listen to his voice. Feel the way he says the lines. He is playing against type, and ruining an otherwise great role. Clark Gable looked and sounded every inch of what he was – an Oil-driller’s son from Ohio. Solid and macho and masculine – “The most masculine man I ever met.” according to Joan Crawford – but he was never refined. Never a Carolinian. Never a gentleman. Rhett is supposed to sit back and laugh at the world. Where Rhett is meant a rapier, Gable is a baseball bat.
Look at these lines, and try to remove them from the chunky midwest delivery of Gable:
You’re like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.
Don’t think I hold that against you. Ladies have never held any appeal for me.
Take a good look my dear. It’s an historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night.
Think of the musical delivery of Tommy Lee Jones in JFK, (1991), or Val Kilmer in Tombstone (1993). These are words meant for a certain kind of voice. A certain kind of smile. Where Rhett is a rye smirk, Gable is an all-American grin. According to cinema legend Mitchell herself wanted Basil Rathbone for the role – and you can see why. Butler needs bite, needs edge. He’s a not a hero, he’s Addison De Witt with a mint julep where his martini should be.
Gable, like Howard, hated this film. Describing it as “a girl picture”, and likely only agreed to make it so that the studio bosses would hush up his rather scandalous divorce and allow him to marry Carole Lombard without invoking the “morality clause” in his contract. Through laziness or embarrassment or simply being wrong for the part, he comes damn close to ruining the movie.
It’s noteworthy that by far the most engaging scenes of the film come when both the men are absent. The rebuilding Tara sequences, and the scene where Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) and Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) cover up the murder of a Yankee deserter are genuinely compelling cinema. The two actresses thoroughly put their male counterparts to shame throughout the whole movie. Whether this is simply due to bitchy one-up-woman-ship we’ll never know.
Of course, one possible factor is the director…or rather directors. George Cukor, famously a good director of women, was fired by Selznick for being gay – the producer thought a gay man incapable of directing convincing love scenes between men and women and replaced him with Victor Fleming, a much more manly type. Regardless, Cukor continued to direct both Leigh and de Havilland off-set and in secret, as both actresses much preferred working with him to working with Clark Gable’s hunting buddy.
Maybe the superior direction helped elevate their performances above those of Gable and Howard, but it honestly doesn’t seem like anything, short of a cattle-prod, was going to engage those men in this film.
2) Flaw the second: Where and when.
The performances of the two male leads provide to us a handy segue to a second flaw: Southern accents, the lack thereof. Gable doesn’t have one. Howard doesn’t try. de Havilland’s is indecisive and Leigh’s is…patchy, to be kind. I don’t like to be too strict with this kind of thing, as a general rule. A good performance is usually more important than a good accent (with the rider that no accent at all is much, MUCH better than a bad accent).
BUT – that’s what this film is about. Read the prologue:
“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.”
The whole point of this film is a celebration, or at least an honest depiction, of a different way of life. Of manners we don’t have and words we don’t say firm-held truths we swapped out for newer ideals. Part of who these people were is the way they spoke, and to immerse us in this old world you need to bring it to life faithfully. Without that it’s just some plonkers in big dresses saying “fiddledeedee” a lot. A story so dependent on affectations and social graces simply MUST get these things right, or else it loses all potency. Imagine filming Pride and Prejudice with Mr Darcy having an Australian accent…it just doesn’t work.
I’m also not a fan of the tone regarding Sherman’s March to the Sea. The awful, cloying prologue – full of romance and sentiment – uses the word “lost” as if it was by some accident that all this came about. When in truth the Union army laid waste to everything in a deliberate plan to cripple the South politically and economically. It was a brutal and methodical act with a calculated aim. It was not just destiny, sweeping an old-fashioned way of life off the continent to make room for new ideas.
That said – the period costumes are mostly good, and they do a remarkable (and indeed very unusual) job of being even handed with regards to the Civil War. Too often the Northerners are portrayed as gallant liberators and the South as bigoted fools. The war was about much more than slavery – a fact well demonstrated in the character of Ashley Wilkes, who is against slavery but fights to defend his home and his land and his family (If only a different actor had been cast in that part!).
3) Flaw the Third – Black and White.
Racism. I know: A pretty obvious theme for a movie set in the South during the Civil War. But I don’t mean that racism. “Darkies” and “niggers” as slaves and nursemaids, I don’t mind that, it’s just the way things were. That’s the old racism that we’ve all since agreed was a “Bad Thing”. I mean our racism, the endemic kind.
There are four notable black characters in this movie – all of them are slaves, which is fine. But none of them are anything but. We don’t know their names or their family. We don’t know what they think or who they like or how they dream. Four slaves, three very stupid, two very irritating. Mammy – the nursemaid. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for it. Why? I don’t rightly know. Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), who’s piercing, wailing voice earns her the most well-deserved slap in movie history. Big Sam (Everett Brown)whose role is summed up in his name. And at one point we’re treated to a black farm-hand trying to chase a chicken round a yard to some funny music. It’s sad, and uncomfortable. A film that could have made a statement, instead shows up just how little had really changed.
I had more. I swear I had more. Good stuff. Groundbreaking, even. Flaws 5 and 6 were gonna be awesome. But it’s 2.44pm on the 18th, and I still have to spellcheck and add links so…let’s skip forward a little in time.
Gone with the Wind is cinema royalty, and I don’t know why. David O. Selznick was a great producer, and he played the hype machine well. His famous “Search for Scarlett” was a fantastic PR scheme (he had probably already chosen Leigh for the role). He picked a huge book at the height of it’s fame and made it a spectacle. Maybe there in lies the film’s power – like Avatar (2009) (which I also hated) – people were awed by the spectacle and blinded to the films flaws. After that, nostalgia swept into to paper over the cracks and make good over time. That’s how great movies are made. Movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Godfather (1972). The cinematic elite, whose serious flaws somehow hide behind a collective blind-spot. Maybe we all love the Emperor too much to point out he’s naked.
My personal experience – I watched this movie twice through in the last week, first just to get the feel of it – and then to make notes. My overall impression: “Meh.” It has some pretty visuals, and some nice lines. Good parts, bad performances. Exciting set pieces and an uneven message. It’s near four hours long, and yet contrives to be both plodding and hurried. Near nothing happens for the third hour of the movie, and then in the space of fifteen minutes one character falls down the stairs causing a miscarriage and 2 others die. The costumes are beautiful, the music sweeping. But the script is patchy. It is, to sum up…Okay.
Not good, just great.