Sunday, February 24, 2013

Masterpiece of the Week: Gone with the Wind, 1939

I’m always shocked when someone tells me that they haven’t seen Gone with the Wind. The idea of never having seen one of the most famous, celebrated, successful, enduring and innovative films in American cinematic history, is astonishing to me. Yet, there is a contingency that has not seen this film.

Gone with the Wind was producer David O. Selznick’s great triumph, and he didn’t mind destroying myriad people in the making of it. Adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 best seller of the same name, the script was written repeatedly by an ever-changing team of people (with a lot of interference from Mr. Selznick). Of the many who worked on the script, only Sidney Howard is credited. The writers weren’t the only people suffering behind the scenes. The film had more than its fair share of directors as Selznick grew increasingly dissatisfied with what he was seeing in the “rushes.” While Victor Fleming (who also directed another film in 1939 that you may have heard of—The Wizard of Oz) is credited as director, both Sam Wood and George Cukor sat in the director’s chair for awhile.

Olivia de Havilland: Turner Entertainment
The film boasts one of the most famous casts in film history, and, one of the most famous searches for a leading lady. One of the first to be cast was the exceptional Olivia de Havilland as the gentle Melanie Wilkes (the sympathetic antithesis of the film’s lead, Scarlett). Casting the other leading roles posed some considerable debate amongst the production team. Finally, Leslie Howard was cast as the rather ethereal Ashley Wilkes (the object of Scarlett’s affections), and—another great triumph for Selznick—Clark Gable agreed to play Rhett Butler, the uber-masculine blockade runner. But, who was to play Scarlett? Many tested. Many were considered. At one point, early on, it was rumored that Warner Brothers would lend Bette Davis to Selznick for the role of Scarlett, providing Errol Flynn would play Rhett Butler. Selznick declined. Other finalists included Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett. Only two of the finalist were tested in Technicolor: Paulette Goddard and a lesser known British actress Vivien Leigh whom Selznick’s wife referred to as “The Scarlett dark horse.” The dark horse won the race.

Leigh and Howard: Turner Entertainment
Completing the cast were Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy”, Thomas Mitchell and Barbara O’Neill as Scarlett’s parents, Alicia Rhett as “India Wilkes,” Butterfly McQueen as Prissy and a host of other popular character actors of the era too numerous to list here.

This was the most highly anticipated film of the 1930’s and is part of the reason that 1939 is considered the greatest year in motion picture history. Of course, even if you’ve not seen the film, you’re aware of its plot. Gone with the Wind follows the lives of two intertwined Southern families before, during and after the Civil War. While some will argue that the film glorifies the South, it also shows much of the turmoil of that period in American history in great detail.

Leigh as Scarlett: Turner Entertainment
Technically revolutionary, the picture employs techniques that were unheard of at the time—combining layers of motion picture film with glass paintings, trick shots and even an unusual title sequence. The film swept the academy awards that year. However, the most notable Oscar win was the award for Best Supporting Actress which went to Hattie McDaniel—the first African American to win an Academy Award.

I really feel that everyone should seeGone With the Wind at least once. It’s a masterpiece—like watching a living painting set to an amazing score by the brilliant Max Steiner. However, if those of you who have not seen it still refuse, well, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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