The film is a saga of destruction and reconstruction during and after the American Civil War. Against this background of an aristocratic society collapsing then struggling to adjust to harsh new commercial and social realities, the love affair between Rhett and Scarlett flickers, then flames into passion, but then burns out, leaving only ashes. Rhett consigns Scarlett to damnation at the very moment she recognises her long infatuation with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who has encouraged her feelings whilst having no intention of leaving his devoted wife Melanie (Olivia de Haviland), has been a false romantic illusion. When Melanie dies and Ashley cocoons himself in egoistic self-pity, she realises her mistake, but it is too late. ‘What’s to become of me?’ she cries, to which Rhett delivers the immortal reply: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’. It was an expensive reply, too. Such profanity was forbidden under the Production Code and Selznick had to pay $5,000 to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America for permission to use that line, the shock effect being slightly diluted by Gable’s delivery, where he shrewdly places emphasis on the word ‘give’ rather than ‘damn’.
If one were to put a date on the moment that indelibly marked the high point of Hollywood in its heyday, one might suggest 15 December 1939. This was the date of the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, Georgia, an event attended by over 50 film stars and nearly 2,000 dignitaries and regarded as so special that the Governor had declared a state holiday. Nothing was more remarkable about the film than the fact that it lived up to its own publicity. It was to win ten Oscars and to be a colossal box office success, being seen at that time by more people than any other motion picture in history (a record, many say, that still holds). It was a fittingly spectacular end to the year of 1939, which has since often been looked on as a golden year for Hollywood film production; and indeed in some ways it is the culmination of Hollywood’s dominance of the 1930s as the Mecca of mass entertainment and appeal.
The driving force behind all this was the producer, David Selznick, son-in-law of the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, but a fiercely independent spirit who was determined with this project to top all his previous successes. The story behind the film (and no film has inspired so many books about its making) was to be as dramatic as the film itself. On acquiring the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Selznick rapidly became aware that he was not just adapting a text but a literary phenomenon with a fanatical following. Within six months of its publication, the publishers had been obliged to publish nearly half a million copies to keep pace with demand; and with that came a loyal readership holding strong views about what the film should be like and who should play the leading roles, demands that Selznick would have to satisfy.
No effort or expense was spared in the endeavour to bring to the screen a cinematic realisation that did justice to the novel. The bulk of the screenplay was written by Sidney Howard, a respected dramatist and adaptor of others’ material, particularly admired for his play and then screenplay based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Dodsworth (filmed by William Wyler in 1936): sadly, Howard was to die before the film opened. Nevertheless, no fewer than 16 other writers worked on it at different stages, including such eminent figures as Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht. Although in the end the direction was credited solely to Victor Fleming (who had come onto the film after directing most of another enduring classic of that year, The Wizard of Oz), the first director on the film was George Cukor, who had done a year’s preparation on it but who, after three weeks of filming and to the distress of his leading actresses, was fired because of what were called ‘creative differences’ with the producer. Director Sam Wood was also called in to help out towards the end of the picture when Fleming had a nervous collapse after yet another blazing row with his leading actress, which had left him, he was to say later, with the urge to drive off the nearest cliff. Meanwhile Selznick’s indefatigable chief publicist, Russell Birdwell, was devising ever more ingenious strategies to keep the film in the public eye, even to the extent of sending the press foreign-made typewriters with the initials of the film highlighted by coloured keys.
The main publicity inevitably centred on the casting of the two central roles, the tempestuous lovers at the heart of the drama, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. The public had already made up its mind about who must play Rhett: the leading heart-throb of the day, Clark Gable. Selznick had to pay a high price to persuade his father-in-law to release Gable from his MGM contract for the film; and, indeed, by providing half the film’s financing in return for world distribution rights and half the profits, MGM did very well out of the deal. But the real teaser, which Selznick exploited to the full for publicity purposes, centred on the question of who was to play Scarlett O’Hara. Thirty-two actresses were tested and a decision had still not been made when the film began shooting with the famous burning of Atlanta sequence, which had to be shot first to make room for the other sets. Legend has it (and it has never been contradicted by anything as mundane as the truth) that Selznick’s younger brother, Myron, a top Hollywood agent, was visiting the set at that time in the company of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who were lovers and shortly to be married. ‘Hey, genius’, Myron called out to his brother, ‘meet your Scarlett O’Hara!’ David turned round, took one look at Vivien Leigh against the background of the flames, and realised his search for Scarlett was at an end.
The phrase ‘gone with the wind’ comes from a love poem ‘Cynara’ by the nineteenth-century poet Ernest Dowson, and its famous refrain ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion’ might have suggested to Margaret Mitchell something of the tempestuous on-off romance of her two strong-willed leading characters. In the context of the film, however, as an opening title penned by Ben Hecht reveals, ‘gone with the wind’ refers to the world and values of the American South blown away by the forces of war and change. As Butler, a pragmatic realist who sees the writing on the wall before his Southern friends and adjusts his life and expectations accordingly, Gable’s performance cannot be faulted: it has all the romantic charisma the part requires, but he seasons it with a wicked wit, never more so than in his dealings with Scarlett, whose selfish deceptions attract as much as appal him because he recognises something of a kindred spirit. ‘We’re alike’, he tells her at one stage, ‘selfish and shrewd, but able to look things in the eye and call them by their right name’. As Scarlett, Vivien Leigh seems at first all feminine caprice, which must later turn to ruthless self-preservation, but she also always conveys underneath the frivolous surface the character’s sharp intelligence that is to captivate Rhett. She is a character with dynamism in a society that does not value or encourage such qualities in a woman, so that much of her energy and potential, one feels, become warped by the delusion that love should be the consuming goal of her life. In this respect, it is a performance that anticipates her definitive portrayal of another Southern belle of later vintage, also clinging to her romantic illusions as her body and her property are threatened by violation, Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which, like Gone with the Wind, also won her an Academy Award.
The film is an awesome spectacle that even today would be hard to match: perhaps a reason that thus far it has never been remade. The burning of Atlanta remains an exciting set piece. Some of the individual shots are breathtaking, none more so than the moment when the camera cranes away from Scarlett as she searches for a doctor at the Atlanta depot to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers lying in the street awaiting treatment: a masterful visual exposition of an individual’s plight being subsumed and overwhelmed by national tragedy. At moments like this, one is reminded that, for all Selznick’s desire to please the public, he was not afraid to take risks. There are no battle scenes to add spurious excitement; there are moments of striking brutality (an amputation suggested by shadow, Scarlett’s shooting of a Yankee deserter at point-blank range in the face); and, of course, an open rather than happy ending.
It is inevitable that the film would have dated in some respects, though even that is interesting in the sense that it tells you something about the tastes and values of the time. Historically, it has little to say about the causes of the War. The black characters now look either patronised or caricatured, though Hattie McDaniel succeeds in creating a strong and admirable character out of Scarlett’s maid, Mammy, and also created history by being the first black performer to win an Oscar. The sexual politics look dubious now, and a feminist writer, Angela Carter, has expressed outrage at the notorious and, for its time, daring ‘marital rape’ scene, when a drunken Rhett carries Scarlett to bed; particularly when it is implied that Scarlett appears to have enjoyed the experience. On the other hand, it must be pointed out that other audiences have seen Scarlett as a precursor of feminism in her bravery, business acumen, determination and resilience. Certainly, one of the great moments of the film occurs when, half starving amidst the fields of her beloved home Tara that has been ravaged by war, she rails at Gone with the Wind (1939) 253 the heavens. ‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat, kill’, she cries, ‘as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!’
Gone with the Wind remains a monument to Hollywood craftsmanship and is the ultimate Hollywood film of the 1930s in terms of style and conception. It is big, brash and romantic, all this heavily underlined by the soaring music of Hollywood’s top composer of the age, Max Steiner. It is star-studded and confident of its appeal, which is more emotional than intellectual, directed more at the heart than at the mind. It has colossal narrative authority and, even allowing for Selznick’s overarching control, it is essentially a triumph of corporate more than personal filmmaking. Dozens upon dozens of supreme professionals have combined their talents on a project which, as de Haviland suggested at the time, they seemed to sense was not only something special but even promised immortality. The theme of a society suffering and then surviving a terrible war undoubtedly struck a chord at the end of that difficult and tormented decade. More than that, though, in its lament for a vanishing world, it contained its own implicit forecast and comment on the film capital itself. After Gone with the Wind, Hollywood was never to look quite so self-confident again.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: MGM. Producer: David Selznick. Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood. Screenwriters: Sidney Howard, Oliver Garrett, Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling. Cinematographer: Ernest Haller. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Haviland (Melanie Hamilton), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy).]
Sidney Howard, ‘Gone with the Wind’ Screenplay, edited and with an introduction by Richard Harwell, London, Lorrimer, 1981, republished Faber, 1990.
Ted Sennett, Hollywood’s Golden Year 1939, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1989.
Helen Taylor, Scarlett’s Women: ‘Gone With the Wind’ and its Female Fans, London, Virago, 1989. David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David Selznick, New York, Knopf, 1992.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.