Historical Circuit: Gone With the Wind (1939) (**)


goneThe return of the Historical Circuit starts, not with a whimper, but with a bang by irritating countless film fans around the world!  My goal with revamping the Historical Circuit is threefold: 1) To review forgotten classics that are worthy of historical merit 2) To help audiences gain a better understanding of films that are considered “legendary,” and why they have such a vaunted place in the Hollywood mythos and 3) To reexamine classic films outside of their “classic” framework; removing the nostalgia-colored glasses and analyzing them as they stand within today’s day and age.  Everyone has one classic film they don’t like, and it’s usually one of the quintessential pieces of American cinema that ends up on countless lists and defines American movie-making.  With that, let’s discuss why I believe Gone With the Wind is an overrated classic in the pantheon of American cinema.

General audiences know the story: Spoiled Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) suffers through the trials and tribulations inherent within the Civil War.  As poverty and hunger threaten her, Scarlett musters up the strength and determination to save her beloved home, Tara, and take care of her family and friends.  In her personal life, Scarlett harbors an unrequited love for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but can’t deny the fiery passion she feels for Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

No one is disputing that Gone With the Wind isn’t a majestic piece of celluloid.  The antebellum South never looked as exquisite as cinematographers Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes make it look.  The use of Technicolor creates a vibrant world, even when a town is on fire, as seen in the burning of Atlanta.  No, my problems are not with how it looks, it’s with its characters.  I tried to get through Margaret Mitchell’s epic tome about the South, on which this is based, but have you seen it?  It’s a brick!  I understand a lot was changed for the movie, and that in several respects Hollywood softened Mitchell’s depictions of slavery and the KKK.  However, I assert that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the worst characters written and presented!

Vivien Leigh was 26 when she played O’Hara, yet the character ages from 16-to-28 throughout the span of the movie.  I never believedgonewith Leigh was sixteen, and while I know that’s up to individual audience members, if you don’t believe she’s a teenage girl then you can’t accept her character at all.  Seeing a grown adult play a teenager doesn’t work here, particularly when she’s throwing herself around and whining about her life.  Her relationship with Ashley is meant to be one-sided, and becomes downright obsessive, with her refrains that Ashley “loves me” when he’s given no indication (as far as the audience knows) of said love.  That’s immediately contradicted when Ashley and Scarlett meet up and he strings her along by hemming and hawing about “loving” certain aspects of her character.  What those are, I can’t fathom.  As you can see, their relationship is unhealthy on both sides.  I’ve never enjoyed Leslie Howard; he’s a drip in every sense of the word.  Utterly bland and lifeless, yet this is the man that everyone in town fights over?  The two go back and forth, never completely letting their intentions be explicitly known – although they have all the subtlety of a 120-lb dumbbell – before it finally hits Scarlett that Ashley doesn’t love her; “Ashley, you should have told me years ago that you loved her and not me”  Are you serious, woman?  He never gave you any indication he did love you?  And it’s only once his wife is dead, ruining his life and taking away a woman who is 30,000 times better than you, that you realize what the audience knew from hour one?!  Don’t get me wrong, Ashley was somewhat complicit in never sitting Scarlett down and saying something, but she’s beyond dense.  Her character is written to discover stuff at the last possible second, thus making her decisions eye-roll inducing because she should have realized them far earlier than three hours later.

The one character that’s got his finger on the pulse is Clark Gable as Rhett Butler.  Gable’s the only character I can stand (other than Olivia De Havilland as Melanie, and even then she’s a total doormat) and he’s far from perfect.  He understands the type of woman Scarlett is and supposedly accepts her in spite of her selfishness and indomitable spirit; of course, the two famously end up separating with Gable telling he doesn’t “give a damn” about what happens to her; so much for loving her, warts and all.  He is the character that’s written closely enough to mimic what the audience is thinking about Scarlett at the time.  Unfortunately, this is the movie that coined the term “conjugal rape” (thanks for that oxymoron of a phrase FilmSite), and it’s all bound up in Rhett Butler.  During a particularly feisty argument, Rhett sweeps Scarlett up despite her attempts to fight him off, and carries her upstairs for sex…whether she likes it or not.  The next scene depicts Scarlett blissfully, and orgasmically, happy, so it’s all okay!  I’ve heard people tell me this scene is the apotheosis of romantic, and I want to beat said people in the head!  Just the fact that a term like “conjugal rape” has to be created to forgive Rhett’s actions, is ridiculous.  Rape is rape, and there’s nothing romantic about it.  It’s doesn’t save their marriage, and during a fight Scarlett miscarries the child born of that action; ultimately, stating that pregnancy born of rape must be stopped.  I could be grasping at straws, but it’s a sequence of the movie that’s already removed me from identifying their relationship as romantic.
I’m aware my position on Gone With the Wind is contrary to most, but then again you’d be surprised how many anti-Gone With the Wind fans are out there; it’s been listed on Entertainment Weekly’s list of Most Overrated Movies, if that’s any indication that it’s entered the popular lexicon as overrated.  Instead of Scarlett vowing she’d “never go hungry again,” I wish she had starved within the first 90 minutes.  I could go on about the movie’s faults, and I haven’t even touched on the depiction of racism and African-Americans, but I ultimately leave this in the hands of the readers.  Is Gone With the Wind overrated?

**For future installments, I’m leaving suggestions up to the readers.  Have a specific movie you want me to review?  Feel free to send in suggestions, or you can just throw out a year and I can pick a movie from that era.