Without a doubt, this 1939 Best Picture winner was an epic cinematic achievement. Nearly four hours in length, Margaret Mitchell’s book of plantation life before, during and after the American Civil War—itself no slim volume at 1,037 pages—was filmed with the only seven Technicolor cameras then in existence. How amazing the result must have been for those audiences of the day; thank goodness there are so many fires, bomb blasts and moments of embarrassment to make the screen as red as the lead character’s name. The effective use of rear projections and silhouettes coordinated and largely shot by “camera operator” Ernest Haller provide the best component of the production when seen through 21st century eyes and ears.
Director Victor Fleming (variously and anonymously assisted by George Cukor and Sam Wood) had a first-rate ally in Sidney Howard (and a quartet of other “contributing writers”—notably Ben Hecht), whose screenplay deftly captured the essence of the source material. Unfortunately, the storytelling never comes near to the nuanced characterization and narrative balance that, for one important example, John Steinbeck found in his portrayal of an equally ruthless woman, Cathy Ames, in East of Eden.
As Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh lights up the multi-year drama with her beauty, but is saddled with scenes and situations that make her come across more as an excessively spoiled brat than evilly manipulating woman who will get her way at any cost.
Two years after 12 Years a Slave moved the true depiction of how life really was for blacks in America ahead exponentially, watching the stereotypical contentment of Southern slaves (happily fanning their “betters” during a heat wave; being referred to categorically as “inferior” by Scarlett’s land-is-the-only-thing-that-matters Dad) combined with the cardboard characterizations, place this film in the category of so-so soap operas rather than high art.
Beyond Scarlett, her cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland gamely going along with the gag) happily sees every betrayal, death, disease or misfortune through rose-coloured glasses. Her sainthood is assured, but her credibility is as pathetic as it is predictable.
The saving grace, until the final couple of reels, comes in the sunny ways of Clark Gable playing worldly, savvy, womanizing Rhett Butler. Gable, clearly revelling in the “white knight” role, marvellously bedevils Scarlett until their marriage only succeeds in proving—once under the skin—how alike they actually are. Even at that, the drunken “rape” scene and morning-after tumble down the stairs is driven by Rhett’s nefarious twin whose existence comes out of the blue.
Sadly, his famous, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” line succinctly sums up the expansive movie whose timelessness is decades past its best-before date. JWR