To the Best Picture winner’s circle, the 1930s has graduated some notable alumni. But even the brightest products of that decade are dwarfed in comparison to the juggernaut of “Gone with the Wind,” which won Best Picture in 1939. It’s astonishing how far it raised the bar beyond what any film up to that point had been able to achieve. What’s more extraordinary is that more than 70 years later, the list of films is modest that can claim to even be in the same league as “Gone with the Wind.” It truly was the high point of Hollywood history. If I had to commit to selecting an all-time favorite film, this would undoubtedly be the one, hence this admittedly, albeit slightly, over-effusive post.
Without question, it is producer David O Selznick’s audacity, determination, undeniable talent, not to mention extremely good fortune, which realized the whole grand affair. With Selznick’s chutzpah behind the wheel, the story of making “Gone with the Wind” became as dramatic, epic and chaotic as the actual film itself. The production consumed a parade of screenwriters, devoured three directors and became an over-budgeted leviathan. And yet, somehow, it soared, miraculously knitting together every element of film to produce a masterpiece.
|Producer David O Selznick with Vivien Leigh on Oscar night.|
But what is it that makes “Gone with the Wind” such a singularly great film? That is a question that presents a buffet of valid responses. I’m sure everyone has their own answer, and rightfully so. What appears onscreen is a total team effort devoid of a single weak link. Every component of this film is operating on such a high level that one could ponder endlessly about what constitutes the supremacy of “Gone with the Wind.” But in the interest of time and space, for me, its greatness hinges chiefly from Vivien Leigh’s towering performance as Scarlett O’Hara.
In short, the weight of the film rests on Scarlett’s shoulders, and with a running time of nearly four hours, that translates into an enormous amount of pressure. But Vivien Leigh proved more than equal to the task, delivering quite simply the greatest performance ever by an actress. However, matching Leigh to the part of Scarlett is an introduction that encountered as many twists and turns as that clown fish looking for his son in “Finding Nemo.”
Finding Scarlett became an international pastime. The public sent the studio piles of letters, scribbling their recommendations for who they thought should be awarded the role, which totaled 121 different actresses being named. Interestingly, one man all the way from New Zealand wrote in suggesting Vivien Leigh. Eventually, 32 actresses were screen-tested, with the choices being narrowed down to six leading-ladies: Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck. But still no frontrunner emerged, and the frantic search for Scarlett dragged on. After a while, Selznick joked that they would have to wait until Shirley Temple grew up to play the part.
Late into the casting process, Laurence Olivier happened to travel to Hollywood with his new love interest: a little-known actress named Vivien Leigh. She had coveted the part of Scarlett, and through Olivier’s connections, landed a screen test, officially being offered the role on Christmas Day in 1938. While the announcement stirred up some controversy, particularly in the South due to the fact that Leigh was British, most Southerners were generally reported to offer a shrug and say, “Better an English girl than a Yankee.”
If “Gone with the Wind” does have an over-arching theme, it would be survival, examining why some rise to the occasion and others fade from view when trials break on the horizon. Scarlett is the total embodiment of survival throughout, further cementing her position as the keystone to the entire narrative. It’s her determination to “never go hungry again” that fuels the action of the entire story. She does indeed lie, cheat, steal and kill to ensure her survival, sending life-altering shockwaves through everyone and, perhaps most of all, herself.
Her will to survive is what makes her such a fascinating character because it causes you to simultaneously root for and against her. You want to her lick the Yankees, to save Tara from destruction and fulfill her impassioned speech to God. Yet when Rhett walks out on her it induces some head-nodding approval because Scarlett refused to trade-in her stubbornness and pride, insofar as he was concerned. Plus, she married her sister’s beau, which is a pretty bitchy move. (Curiously, author Margaret Mitchell initially wanted to call her heroine Pansy O’Hara, which is ridiculous and completely out of step with the character. Because love her or hate her, nothing about Scarlett suggests that she shares a single trait with the diminutive pansy. You don’t mess with Scarlett.)
The role of Scarlett was certainly a high-wire act that would have crumbled in lesser hands, especially given all of the aforementioned drama happening off camera. But Vivien Leigh deserves all the credit in the world for thoroughly inhabiting Scarlett in her many incarnations from silly flirt to Civil War survivor, and from unethical businesswoman to hard-charging wife. I think my favorite moment of Leigh’s performance is when Rhett forces Scarlett to attend Ashley’s birthday party in order to not let her escape public humiliation stirred up by her own foolishness for throwing herself once again at Ashley’s feet. She arrives at the party, overdressed in a devil-red velvet gown, bracing herself for Melanie’s public rebuke. With all eyes on her, Scarlett just stands there, not saying a word. Yet the stiffness in her pose and in her fact exhibits a rare vulnerability that conveys pages of character description, while also showcasing the heights of Leigh’s talent.
Besides Vivien Leigh’s performance, there is so much more that one could write about this film. The music, the costumes, the sets, the cinematography, the acting, the writing, it all merits its own essay. But in the end, perhaps what makes “Gone with the Wind” so enjoyable as a film is that it has it all: war, romance, tragedy, comedy, beauty, ugliness, clarity, ambiguity. And because it congregates such variety, every time you watch “Gone with the Wind,” the experience is never duplicated. David O Selznick’s pictures have often been called the Rolls Royce of films. Indeed they are, and every once in a while, everyone should take “Gone with the Wind” out for a spin to appreciate what a fine ride it truly is.
Favorite Line: “Gone with the Wind” is more quotable that “Jerry Maguire,” Wayne’s World” and every John Hughes movie combined. The number of great lines and phrases in this film would not fit underneath one of Mammy’s petticoats. And while “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is without question a classic. My favorite line is when Scarlett raises a fist to the air, declaring, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”
A runner-up to this line is when Prissy is calling for Rhett to leave his engagement and come help transport Melanie and her new baby out of Atlanta before full-blown siege descends upon it. Calling up to him, Prissy cries out, “Captain Butler! Captain Butler! You come down to the streets to me! Miss Mellie done had her baby. A fine baby boy, and Miss Scarlett and me, we brung him.” Now I realize on its face this quote doesn’t appear to be anything but special. However, it brings back a funny memory of my older sister who used to do an exaggerated impression saying this line, with an over-the-top, shrieking delivery that would never fail to make me laugh. In fact, just writing about it now tugs at the corners of my mouth.