Monday, October 12, 2009

Gone with the Wind (1939)

By Eric Jessen 10/10/09

Oh, how time heals all wounds. All of a sudden by 1939 D. W. Griffith was a trendy hack and Victor Fleming (with the help of George Cukor, Sam Wood and probably a few others) was the business' greatest artist and craftsman. From the ghastly racism of Griffith's 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, to Fleming and company's so called work of truth and genius, Gone with the Wind, Hollywood had apparently learned its lesson. No longer would black people be portrayed as rabid dogs, foaming at the mouth over white women, or imbecile beasts. They said with GWTW, everything had changed. Black people were finally portrayed honestly. They were finally shown in their true form: the dignified, no-nonsense maid, the obedient, blubber-lipped houseman, and the chirping midwife, all happily whistling Dixie, content with the servant's life. With a bow from the movers and shakers (Selznick, MGM and the Academy) and a loud “Your welcome,” Hollywood expected a pat on the back. And in 1939 they got what wanted. But unfortunately for them, everyone has done some rethinking.
Looking back at both “Birth” and GWTW, it is clear little had changed. No wound had healed. The scar on Hollywood and all of America for that matter, was still evident. From 1915 to 1939, Hollywood had just picked away a big ugly scab and replaced it with another. In some ways, I think the depiction of black people and the Civil War era South is more troubling in GWTW than in “Birth.”
The black characters in GWTW were actually played by black people. That was a start. This cannot be said for “Birth.” And at least with Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), they were dignified. And in the case Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Pork (Oscar Polk), they were slightly more lovable then laughable. The black characters in “Birth” compared to those in GWTW were, as Globe critic Ty Burr might say, aggressively stupid rather than acceptably dumb. Where GWTW really allies itself with “Birth” is in its message. Both seem to want the same thing for black people: to be forever white people's help. They both strongly advocate for the traditions of the old South, just in different ways. “Birth” puts its interpretation (falsification) of the Civil War and Reconstruction and its opinion of slavery in full view, whereas GWTW dances around the issue. But considering its nostalgic glorification of Tara, and the plantations yearly ball - girls in poofy dresses frolicking around the expansive garden, with all the assistance in the world from Mammy, Pork and Prissy they could ever want - the point is made by omission.
So what's infuriating and most troubling about GWTW is that it was extremely successful. Stupidity and wrongheadedness were slipped right past us more effectively then ever. And how? By turning the schmaltz-o-meter up to eleven. We all got wrapped-up in its first class melodrama. The four million dollars (the biggest budget to date) spent on bright, gleaming Technicolor, thousands of extras playing dead, and one big smoldering set mesmerized us. GWTW features a story for the ages (adapted from the novel): a sweeping tale of lovers crossing paths at simply the wrong time. It still wows today. And who can forget such great performances. The four mil was also well spent on the perfect “damn,” dame and dude. Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara looks most bratty, neurotic, and spunky. Clark Gable appears at home playing the suave drunkard Rhett Butler. And the “damn” is a memorable cherry on top. These three d's seem to hold GWTW together and make it quite enjoyable (though I suggest spreading it out over two nights). And the ensemble directing job is not half bad at all. Characters are knocked off with the utmost precision, each death more unexpected then the last, and each more gut wrenching. When Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Michell) and Bonny Blue Butler (Cammie King) are flung off their horses, I picture them catapulted to the heavens. When Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) passes her spirit rises and sprouts beautiful white feathered wings. When Scarlet wanders off into the mist near the end, it's Melanie's spirit that guides her. GWTW, the overwrought melodrama, will endure. But like “Birth,” it will always have that irremovable blemish: its message.

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