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The AFI Top 100 Films: Gone With The Wind (#4)

Entertainment 150Gone With The Wind (1939)
Starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard
Written by Sidney Howard (screenplay) and Margaret Mitchell (novel)
Directed by Victor Fleming

When I was but a wee leveret in the wilds of Baltimore City, I loved Gone With The Wind. This was a time before it (or anything) was readily available, so I waited for it to air on TNT every year. I’d watch it in two parts on weeknights, then in its entirety the following Sunday evening. It was something of a tradition for me. I got to the point where I knew entire stretches of the movie by heart. I was that big of a fan.

I was really looking forward to seeing it as part of the AFI Top 100; it had been at least ten years since I watched it, even though I had seen it at least a dozen times. There’s always a sense of trepidation when you revisit a fond memory from your childhood. Does the story hold up as well as you thought it did? What little details do you notice now that flew over your head when you were younger? I know a lot more about slavery and the curious way Hollywood has approached the subject than I did back then; just how cringe-inducing would seemingly innocuous details seem to me now?

The answer is very. Gone With The Wind is a deeply problematic film, and not just because of the way it asks us to think of slavery as “not that bad”. True, it engages in a bit of revisionist history, painting the antebellum South as something of an American Eden. But the issues go deeper than that, right down to the core of the story and its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. I had always gone with the popular opinion of Scarlett — she was a Southern spitfire, full of flint and steel, able to take whatever came her way and make the best of it. But on watching the film this time, I have to say that I think she’s a sociopath.

The movie is roughly four hours long, and a LOT happens in it, but the basic through-line is this. Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is one of the daughters of a wealthy Irish landowner in the South. Right around the time the Civil War is heating up, she’s set her sights on dashing Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes (Howard). However, Ashley loves her neighbor Melanie (de Havilland) and they agree to get married just before every able-bodied man is called to fight. Through the troubled years of open rebellion, loss and reconstruction, Scarlett tries to survive, woo Ashley and resist the charms of scoundrel Rhett Butler (Gable). It’s a sweeping epic of a story with wonderful setpieces and so many memorable scenes. Rhett is a singular type of hero, complicated and contradictory, and you can’t help but feel that he should be throwing his affections after a better person than Scarlett.

Throughout her life, Scarlett manipulates and cajoles men into doing what she wants them to do; she marries twice not for love but to spite someone and propel herself into a better financial position respectively, and she tries to get Ashley to run away with her while her entire family is depending on her and Melanie is recuperating from an extremely difficult birthing and a harrowing trip from Atlanta back to the O’Hara’s plantation. She has disdain for just about anyone that she doesn’t have a use for and only thinks of them once they can do something for her. Simply put, she is the worst.

It’s actually a testament to the great charisma of Vivian Leigh that the character can be so reprehensible yet still engrossing. You find yourself caught up in her struggle despite her thoroughly amoral behavior, even if it’s because you hope the people she’s with make it through all right. Scarlett is caught between her dream of a romanticized life (Ashley) and the kind of life that she brings to herself through her actions (Rhett), yet both options feel simply too good for her; there are times where you really wonder if she’s even capable of love, or if her feelings for Ashley are some sort of self-serving reflex, or a passing desire taken root and amplified because it couldn’t be fulfilled.

I know it seems like I’m coming across really harshly with Scarlett, but really…her lack of empathy knows no bounds. She whips a horse to death outside of Tara and feels not the slightest bit of remorse, immediately moving on to the house. When Melanie goes into labor during the fall of Atlanta, all she can think about is how inconvenient it is for her and her plans to get out of the city. She volunteers at a veteran’s hospital just to pass the time, and pretty much bolts as soon as she gets her fill. Later, she goes back to try and get the doctor to preside over Melanie’s birth, but only so that she can get it over with and leave the city before Sherman arrives. Everything is only considered by how much it affects her; she is thoroughly, consistently selfish. It’s astonishing.

And her myopic, self-centered view of the world permeates the rest of the movie. Scarlett’s way of life is seen as idyllic, and the Northern interlopers who flood the sacked and razed land are only out to make a quick buck, hoodwinking naive and recently-freed slaves into serving their interests. The slaves themselves are either stupid and indolent (Prissy, as played by Butterfly McQueen), slow but completely content to serve their masters (field overseer Big Sam, as played by Everett Brown) or a caustic but doting servant (Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy — the role that made her the first African-American Oscar winner). There are some scenes that are shocking in their treatment of black people as little more than props — particularly one where a bunch of little girls are waving palm fronds over a bunch of sleeping belles.

I realize when Gone With The Wind was made; in 1939, Hattie McDaniel couldn’t actually pretend the premiere in Atlanta due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. She couldn’t sit with the rest of her castmates during the Oscar ceremony where she won for Best Supporting Actress. She couldn’t even be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery upon her death more than a decade later because they wouldn’t accept black bodies. In a roundabout way, the movie actually helped galvanize the black community into speaking up about its representation (and treatment) in the entertainment industry and the whitewashing of history. In truly American fashion, Gone With The Wind provided a mixed blessing by being so tone-deaf about its subject matter.

But it’s important to point out the image it bolstered at the time and how it informed the perception of the South for decades afterward. It holds up an idyllic, false image of a really ugly period of American history, and it holds up Scarlett O’Hara as its champion. She’s supposed to be the shining virtue of Southern pride — resourceful, proud and determined. But to me, she’s just cold, manipulative and selfish.

I wish I could simply take the movie for what it is — a romantic epic that tells a great love story, populated with indelible characters and great dialogue. Gone With The Wind is certainly that. But I think we’re meant to identify with — maybe even admire — Scarlett, and that’s just asking too much. The movie does what it set out to do exceedingly well, and Clark Gable gives one of the all-time great performances for a dashing romantic lead. But the heart of the movie is rotten, there’s simply no way around that. Once you realize that, the rot pervades everything in it.

Still, I highly recommend that you see Gone With The Wind. For better or worse, it’s a tremendous piece of our cinematic history. Just don’t confuse it for our actual history; you may end up coming away with the entirely wrong lessons.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: It Happened One Night (#35)

Entertainment 150It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
Written by Robert Riskin (screenplay) and Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)
Directed by Frank Capra

One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I’ve discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called “Poverty Row”. Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a ‘humbling experience,’ so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that’s the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn’t think much of the final cut of the film.

Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia’s biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the “big five” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).

Actually, this might be how they got to the Oscars.

“Will pay gas for ride to better movie.”

Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What’s impressive is you wouldn’t know it by just watching the film — it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I’d like to think the latter.

Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn’t approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that’s his actual name — he’s not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).

Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he’ll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That’s the only set up you need before it’s off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I’ve ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can’t stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they’re building on the template these guys formed.

Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he’s always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she’s quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways — Ellie may be inexperienced, but she’s tremendously quick-witted. It’s great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.

It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she’s such a fully-realized character. She’s helpless not because she’s a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she’s never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.

It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that’s come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can’t quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I’ve taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I’d never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There’s a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I’m sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.

This is a grand romantic comedy that’s about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It’s about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it’s only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they’re reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can’t quite catch a break. Together, they’re an unstoppable bickering force. The world — and the audience — is in the palm of their hands.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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