Analysis: GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

This is a special guest post by Scott Holleran:

My first experience of this movie was probably on television, probably in fragments. It made an impression but the movie ranged into my memory as a series of scenes disembodied from the whole work. For example, I remember watching the burning of Atlanta and certain, distinctive scenes and not much else. So, my first impressions were perfect for today’s conceptual-deprivation culture. That’s the poverty of being among the TV generation.

It took a long time to appreciate this film as a work of art, which now I know it is. At some point, as I began to take a serious interest in movies, I rediscovered it on home video. Then, again, on disc and possibly again in a revival house on one of those scratchy prints with popping sounds. That a civilization could be gone with the wind came through and I was an admirer. Later, I read about the novel upon which the movie’s based, which, with a romance novel-type jacket design for the mass market paperback edition, was off-putting.

At some point, it dawned on me that Gone With the Wind is an important epic motion picture so I sought its source and read the novel. I was astonished at the brilliant writing. I instantly observed a similarity to my favorite novel, also an epic of American literature and also written by an author who happens to be a woman. Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell conveys the romanticism, scope and grandeur of Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand and it’s worth noting that Rand’s first novel, too, involved a love triangle woven into the end of an era in her own 1936 novel, We the Living.

After reading Mitchell’s novel, I saw the movie again — and again. Each time, I was more impressed. And, each time, I was more impressed that I was able to be additionally impressed. This is because, as you probably know, the more you know and study a motion picture, the more easily the film can lose its newness, its ability to hold and sustain interest or focus, suspense, tension or sense of plot progression and, as a result, the less likely it can be to stir one’s original passion.

Then, a few weeks ago, I saw Gone With the Wind, which, this year, marks its 80th anniversary in a culture in which it is extremely likely to be impugned or maligned. I saw it for the first time at one of the grandest movie theaters on earth: Sid Grauman’s Chinese theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

And, this time, for the first time, I was moved … to tears.

The nearly four-hour motion picture begins with three characters in Georgia talking about war. This is an essential starting point. The novel more or less begins with this starting point, too. Gone With the Wind frames its story within an argument over the fact of an oncoming war. It’s not that they’re debating the merits of war. They’re discussing the prospect of war as such; they’re considering the impact of war on their lives. So, this, the fundamental choice to face the facts of reality, is the starting point. Not the war itself. Not slavery, the issue in dispute.

Gone With the Wind is not a war movie. Gone With the Wind is not a slavery movie. Any discourse of it as either entirely misses the movie. It is also, strictly speaking, not a romance, though war, slavery and romance factor into its drama to various degrees. Gone With the Wind dramatizes an entire civilization through the life of a single individual.

Her name is Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh at her best).

Shallow, scheming and self-centered, she’s enraged when she learns during this discussion, in which she’s attempting to ignore the reality of impending civil war, that the object of her desire, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), plans to marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). In subsequent scenes, the men who will become pivotal to the young, impetuous Scarlett’s life, including her father, Gerald O’Hara, but also Frank Kennedy, Ashley Wilkes, Charles Hamilton and a cad named Rhett Butler, argue war on the merits, whistle “Dixie” and, with the recklessness which exemplifies the pre-Civil War American South, crow about going to war.

In this sense, there is real substance to this movie in terms of its grasp of facts and history. Every Southern deficiency is depicted here. The staggeringly affected manners, the pompous preposterousness, the asinine traditions but also the proportionately and wildly irrational inflation of people’s sense of themselves with regard to their actual merit and worth, let alone the source of their wealth, not the main focus and therefore largely unseen. The fact of slave labor is, however, shown, even if it’s not dramatized, though it is more explicit than most films of the era. House, field and overseer are each crucial elements of Twelve Oaks and Tara, the plantations where Gone With the Wind takes place.

What’s good in the South, too, is depicted. The stunning visuals, the land, manners, socializing and courtship and the gentle way of life. Pretty and feisty Scarlett, who’s earned a reputation for being bolder than her peers, holds court and gets talked about by other females and looked upon by men. The outbreak of civil war occurs within her context.

The plot revolves around Scarlett O’Hara; there is a sense in which her pettiness will be tested by war — and what’s impure about Scarlett is fundamentally what will be Gone With the Wind.

The early evidence is Scarlett standing at the window, looking down upon newlyweds Melanie and Ashley. Here’s the heroine on the inside looking out. Yet think about the meaning of her dilemma; she’s really trapped within the Old South, as the opening titles refer to this archaic slave society. In this sense, Scarlett dramatizes how the South’s ways impair the powerful, too. Her only real saviors, friends and comrades, as far as Scarlett knows, are slaves and an angry Irishman. Everyone else is happily, some even stupidly, off to war. In a flash, again like the title, they are gone. Scarlett is left behind — abandoned, lonely and alone.

What comes next builds character, with an outbreak of measles, a move to Atlanta and the entre of the ridiculous Aunt Pittypat, as cartoonish a figure as in the novel. Scarlett’s Mammy (Hattie McDaniel in one of the screen’s greatest performances), knowing all along what exploits the ambitious young missy has in mind, represents the best of Scarlett’s youthful vigor; Mammy fosters, shapes and marks her charge’s growth. Amid a dance, a bid and donation of a ring, Scarlett learns from her new companion, Melanie, wife of the man she thinks she loves.

Here are women in service at war. This, too, is to the film’s credit. Gone With the Wind remains one of the most intelligent, insightful portrayals of women at war ever made, better and more knowing than the hordes of depictions of today’s mindless women on screen who rarely if ever think about anything having to do with serious issues, let alone war or the men sent to fight them.

“With intermittent titles, David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, famously directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with others also filling in, shifts from breeze to gust with news from Gettysburg. Then, come the war-torn faces of those in Atlanta cast down in bonnets amid news of mass death. Fleming lingers on a list of those killed in action. It is words, not pictures, that tell the horrid tale. The camera scrolls down, down, down and down on the same three words.

Cue the theme song “Dixie” as a reprise to the earlier tune’s sense of false jubilation and enter a man of reason, Doctor Meade (Harry Davenport), whose role in the picture is a crucial representation of what will become Scarlett’s education. In a shift to black-and-white color schemes from the rest of the film’s vibrant colors, Gone With the Wind goes from sad and mournful “Dixie” to a musically infused projection of a funeral procession in which Johnny comes marching home.

As Pittypat, Meade, Mammy, Melanie and a young slave named Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) besides Scarlett get dragged, plunged and thrust into the South’s mass death and destruction, in comes Rhett Butler (Clark Gable, brilliantly cast and stellar in the role) with vitality, passion and rage — at the Old South for being the Old South. Butler represents the New South, post-slavery, post-Civil War, though it’s never fashioned or made explicit. What a waste of human life — this is the meaning of his every form of his disgust and he makes no attempt to conceal his emotions or suppress himself in expressing what he feels. Like Scarlett, he is a liberated soul stifled and trapped by the way things are.

There’s music, humor and, during a dance which captures and underscores the surrealism of life during wartime, a total breach from traditionalism. Life remains drab as Scarlett and Atlanta face severe deprivation. Butler has a prostitute, Belle Watling (Ona Munson), to help him ease the chronic anxiety, guilt and agony of war and she’s more than a cliché. The pictures show rain, shadows and the hotly feared Union General William Sherman’s shelling of Atlanta, with churches coming on like a holy calling from God to cease and desist with the Old South rebellion. Pictures of Jesus Christ accompany the sound of moans, the sights of a church and, in one of the movies’ most iconic scenes, the camera pulls back for a scene of mass death and dying.

“Peace be within thy walls“ incongruously graces the screen after Scarlett O’Hara encounters a patient with gangrene. Perhaps you don’t know or remember the grit of Gone With the Wind but it’s there. Between marriages, the making of Scarlett from romantic Southern belle to seasoned war bride happens during Atlanta’s silence and siege. And it isn’t even Intermission.

Before that comes, as Rhett Butler finally kisses Scarlett and enlists in the war for a kind of misintegrated sense of honor, slave Prissy hinges the plot. Prissy’s trauma triggers a key reaction that results in the story’s classic and quite penetrating tale within a tale of three women and a baby. Though this famous scene is generally regarded as humorous, I think after seeing Gone With the Wind in the Chinese theater that simple-minded Prissy’s meltdown underscores the folly of slavery even as it echoes as a call and response to Scarlett’s own earlier cluelessness.

A foreshadowing scene on a bridge marks the end of slavery preceding a scene in which women take refuge in reading (in the novel, it’s a story by Victor Hugo; here, it’s fiction by Charles Dickens). The self-made theme continues with a rainbow followed by blackness, fog and a strange yet familiar place.

The shock and violence of post-war Tara soon becomes clear. Scarlett strikes her sister, Prissy and pretty much everyone else except her mother figure, Mammy, and she forges a secret bond with Melanie over the death of a soldier. By the time war widow Scarlett, who’s remade herself as a businesswoman in post-war Southern society, meets again with her true love Ashley Wilkes, who tells her that he admires her for “facing reality“, the heroine grips the earth and grasps her property rights, legacy and life lessons and vows … to herself and her own ego.

Gone With the Wind essentially carries Scarlett in conversation with herself throughout the epic movie. From that first conversation at Tara with her suitors, the Tarleton twins, to becoming a Confederate captain’s wife in New Orleans and hiring as her subordinate the man to whom she’d once pledged to worship and motherhood, Scarlett O’Hara is both intransigent and indomitable. She will not be struck down.

Like Mammy, the former slave woman whose respect everyone respectable seeks to earn and keep, Scarlett keeps company with herself as a worldly woman alone. She makes mistakes — she makes a terrible parent — and she makes money and love. Scarlett liberates herself from tradition for capitalism, egoism and her own way of life. Gone With the Wind traces her journey in this sense from selflessness to selfishness, in time for the man whose love she finally earns to come full circle with his own mistakes, i.e., drinking alone and taking pity on himself, to reject her with the movie’s most famous line.

“Frankly, my dear…” and the precision with which Mr. Gable delivers the line redeems the film’s previous strife and tension into a single moment. It is tempting to root for what at first might seem like his own redemption. But Gone With the Wind is not the leading man’s story and, on the movie’s terms, it’s a mistake to jeer or cheer the line.

‘Frankly’ spends itself on a serious dramatic moment; it signifies Rhett Butler’s ultimate betrayal of himself — in particular, his idealism — and everything he loves. And it signals one of the screen’s greatest victories.

While the ‘Frankly’ line endures in audience memories, it is tellingly uttered only after man and woman stand as equals on the landing of the staircase from which Scarlett has literally taken a tumble in a penultimate descent — only to rise again — and, also tellingly, it comes before the movie’s last and final line.

“I’ll figure out a way to get him back … tomorrow is another day.”

This is the triumph, the meaning and the glory of Gone With the Wind. It is not a film about the slavery. It is not a movie about civil war. It is not a picture of what war does to a slave, a woman and a man — or a family, a home and way of life, though it rarely gets credit for its insights into each of those dramatizations. There is depth to this movie about Prissy, the overseer, Pittypat, India, Charles, Sue Ellen and more, not just Ashley, Melanie, Mammy, Dr. Meade or Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Like We the Living, Atlas Shrugged and other epic novels by Hugo, Rand and other great works of literature and movies, it is an expression of the ability of the individual to resist the times, the trials and ruins of the day, rise and never let one’s ego be destroyed. It is the story of a man, or, in this case, a woman — or, in any case, a girl who becomes one — and it is certainly not a romance for romance’s sake. Gone With the Wind depicts the promise not to yield, suffer and be beaten down. It is in this sense, to paraphrase one its admirers, Ayn Rand, a paean to forging the “I” one must learn how to say before one can learn to say “I love you”.

This is why it ends where it vows to once again begin.

Gone With the Wind screened during the 10th anniversary Turner Classic Movies festival on April 14, 2019 for its historic 80th anniversary at the Chinese movie theater designed and built by Sid Grauman. This was the 25th anniversary date of the film’s initial airing — the first motion picture showcased without interruption or editing — on Ted Turner’s Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable channel’s first day of launch. The movie was introduced by TCM’s festival director, Genevieve McGuillicuddy, before the original Robert Osborne introduction from April 14, 1994 was shown before the movie.

 

Scott Holleran began his professional writing career as a newspaper correspondent in 1991. He’s worked in a variety of media, including magazines, broadcasting and Internet ventures. His news, cultural commentary, sports and other topical articles has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer. You can find Scott on Facebook, Twitter or on his website. I’m thrilled Scott reached out to feature this entry on Once Upon a Screen. I hope there will be others.

 

13 thoughts

  1. Thank you. All this, and more I want to say to my daughter as we are planning her first viewing of Gone With the Wind.

    I don’t think of myself as a great admirer of the film I first saw at a big screen revival when I was 12 or so. At that time I knew so much was going over my head and wanted to know more. Years later, at a Toronto Symphony Orchestra Pops concert of film music, I found myself unexpectedly bursting into tears as Max Steiner’s Gone With the Wind score began. Sometimes we don’t know the impression something makes on us.

    1. Thank you. Well said about how movies can sneak up on us; it happened to me during this screening. May your movie watching with your daughter be a wonderful experience. Cheers.

  2. Wonderful analysis. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of this film, but I agree it’s one of the better examinations of women coping with war. You also made a good point re: the South being encapsulated by a single character.

    You’ve presented many good arguments, and I think I need to give this film another try. I’ll keep your essay in mind as I watch. Thanks!

  3. What a beautiful and thoughtful perspective on a film I’ve loved since childhood. Every time I see it, I find something new to challenge me or to love about it. Most recently, I’ve been struck by how my opinions on Melanie Wilkes have utterly transformed. Where I once viewed her from Scarlett’s perspective, meek and of a dull personality, I now see her as a woman of quiet resilience whose strength, unlike Scarlett’s, is for the benefit of others.

  4. Great blog post. So many stories about the filming of GWtW too. What always fascinated me about the film was not the Scarlett-Rhett relationship but the Scarlett-Melanie relationship. It’s so much more complex than the love story. I’ll probably write a blog post about it one of these days :-).

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://thedreambookblog.wordpress.com

    1. Thank you. I agree about Melanie, though I think there’s real depths to Scarlett’s relationship with Rhett, too. I agree that there’s much to study and think about than the romance.

  5. Hi,

    Yours was an interesting and well presented viewpoint. While Gone With The Wind is obviously an important, popular and influential film, I would argue that its being view of the ownership and exploitation of the descendants of kidnap victims is jarringly disturbing. The only slave given a real voice and character is slavishly devoted to people who had the right to sell her family on a whim. While there is no need for GWTW to become a documentary on the unspeakable evil of holding human beings as slavery, neither does it have to gloss over the reality of the inhumane and evil institution.

    GWTW influenced many viewers that slaves weren’t really that bad off. That is evil in itself. One millennial film critic once derided 30s/40s films as “white movies for white audiences.” GWTW is a perfect example of that. While an actress of color did (deservedly) win an Oscar for her performance, in what ways did GWTW inform the racial attitudes in America? If we were discussing, say, The Thin Man, the question would be moot. That film exists in a universe where Black people do not exist. But GWTW is set in an era where 4 million human beings were sexually and physically abused, yet somehow manages to play into the myth of the Confederacy as a beautiful, noble lost cause.

    Scarlett says, “Land is the only thing worth fighting for.” Thank God President Lincoln disagreed. Although the film presents a dark view of the post-war era, Reconstruction is central to the establishment of a USA where all people are created equal.

    GWTW is a monument to a government that shot American soldiers and encouraged the murder of President Lincoln. But the film avoids any hard truths in its glorification of “The Lost Cause.” Well, I guess, tomorrow is another day…

    1. Thanks for reading my thoughts on this classic film. I disagree that the movie depicts a universe in which “black people do not exist”. They very much do, in fact, as I write in the analysis. It’s true that slavery is a serious topic which deserves serious examination and I think it’s wrong to see GWTW as a slavery movie, as I’ve argued, for the same reason I think it’s wrong to judge it as a war movie. I’ve written about other slavery-themed pictures, such as The Birth of a Nation (2016) (read my interview with a historian about Nat Turner’s rebellion here: https://www.newromanticist.com/2017/interview-with-alexander-marriott-on-nat-turner/) and Fox Searchlight’s sterling 12 Years a Slave, which won Oscar’s Best Picture (read my review on my blog). However, I think yours is a grave, serious and common error in evaluating arts including movies; applying today’s standards and, worse, other contexts, to works of art which do not depict or purport to depict the subject you’re addressing. To the extent GWTW depicts slavery, it is way ahead of its time in showing the slaves as human. Other movies of the era typically do not do that. It shows them being slaves, being abused, experiencing hardship and it shows them being brave and valiant. Contrary to your claim, I think “Gone With the Wind” made predominantly white 1939 audiences more favorable to seeing blacks as human and paved the way for real progress for achieving acknowledgement of the rights of blacks. I appreciate your commentary and interest in my writing. But I totally reject your argument.

    2. Hi Barry, I attended the GWTW panel at this year’s TCMFF, which was intended to discuss the “complicated” history of this film. All historians on the panel, including Donald Bogel who, as I’m sure you know, has authored several books on African-American depictions in film, were in agreement that the issues with GWTW are not clear-cut in either side of these issues. Particularly if you consider many of the intricacies of the characters and compare to other films. Most interesting is that Bogel stated that even knowing what is to come in the movie one cannot look away from the opening credits on. In any case, this is a great debate to have and I hope it continues.

  6. Thank you to Scott for this thoughtful analysis. I remember watching “Gone with the Wind” in the 70’s with my family when it aired on tv! It was such a huge event- a really big deal in our household. I enjoyed the opportunity to see it on the big screen in 1999 for the 60th anniversary, and at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood when the American Cinematheque screens it at least on a yearly basis. I wish I could have seen it at the Chinese Theater at this year’s TCM FF-the panel discussion sounds like it would have been fascinating. I appreciate this film very much and always enjoy viewing, reading, and learning more about it.

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