The first time I saw the 1939 Civil War classic “Gone With the Wind” was as a young pup in 1961 when my parents dared to take me to a theatrical revival of the nearly four-hour picture. They knew that even in my early double-digits I wouldn’t become fidgety because movies of all stripes captivated me. If it was on the big screen, I was there.
And “Gone With the Wind” didn’t disappoint. I was mesmerized at age 12 and have seen it many times since, including earlier this week when the film was included as part of Cinemark's “classic movies” cycle. It still didn’t disappoint.
“Gone With the Wind” didn’t invent the historical epic, of course, but it certainly refined movies of the era that were huge in scope and ambitious in multilayered storytelling in keeping with its source material, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell.
And the movie’s ability to focus on one central character while carefully developing so many others in her orbit is something from which many modern filmmakers could take a lesson. (Modern Hollywood might also take something from the fact that the central character is a woman.)
“Gone With the Wind” is also wonderfully cast. Vivien Leigh, the young Englishwoman who was not yet well-known in America, won the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara over dozens of other, more prominent American movie stars — and she proved to be the perfect choice. Her performance is utterly winning, despite the character’s self-centered motivations. And Clark Gable, who was always the first choice for Rhett Butler, is also perfect. Thank goodness the filmmakers waited for him and didn’t go with someone else just to get the production moving.
Great performances also come from the actors in the two secondary leading roles, Olivia de Havilland, whose role of Melanie could have been sappy and grating but is instead quite endearing as the quintessential guileless, sweet-natured optimist, and Leslie Howard as the weak-willed Ashley Wilkes, though the character is not foreign to his earlier work.
But the real scene-stealer is Hattie McDaniel, whose characterization of house servant Mammy is hilarious and sly, witty and warm as she becomes Scarlett’s unwanted voice of reason.
I’m not going to excuse the film’s oft-vilified romanticizing of the Old South, nor its inaccuracies regarding Reconstruction after the Civil War, nor the slavery stereotypes that reflect the racism of the 1930s as much as the 19th century (most notably Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy and Oscar Polk’s Pork).
But let’s not forget that McDaniel did win an Oscar, becoming the first black performer to be so honored, and in doing so opened some doors. Quite a thing for 1939.
Taken as a whole, however, even if it’s just on a soap opera level, “Gone With the Wind” is supremely entertaining stuff with many memorable scenes and some startling moments.
The direction by Victor Fleming (whose other triumph, “The Wizard of Oz,” came out the same year) wonderfully captures the scope of events, even as he was constricted by the square-ish film framing of the time.
Widescreen movies would not become an industry standard until 1953, but some scenes in “Gone With the Wind” nonetheless have a big, wide feel to them, especially sequences at Tara and Twelve Oaks, and the famous moment in Atlanta when Scarlett runs through the streets to find a doctor and stops in shock as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal uncountable wounded, dying and dead Confederate soldiers laid out in the seemingly never-ending main streets.
This music is also memorable, the editing is sharp, the pacing is solid, and in this early era of Technicolor, when black-and-white movies were the norm, “Gone With the Wind” is so vivid and rich in its colors that after seeing it you may want to smack the next director whose movie is bathed in muddy grays or oranges.
That “Gone With the Wind” remains the most popular movie of all time is inarguable. In terms of tickets sold and adjusting the numbers for inflation, not even “Avatar” or “Titanic” can touch it.
Suffice it to say, fans will be overjoyed with the new 75th-anniversary Warner Home Video set, which includes all previously issued bonus features in a five-disc Blu-ray box, along with a new featurette and some collectible items: a replica of Rhett Butler’s handkerchief, a music-box paperweight and a 36-page hardcover photo book.