Gone with the Wind (1939)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #41

The most magnificent picture ever!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 233 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1940) | PG (1988)
MPAA: G (1971)

Original Release: 15th December 1939 (premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
US Release: 17th January 1940
UK Release: 18th April 1940 (premiere)
First Seen: TV, c.2005

Stars
Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Vivien Leigh (Fire Over England, A Streetcar Named Desire)
Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage, 49th Parallel)
Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dark Mirror)
Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat, Song of the South)

Director
Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe)

Screenwriter
Sidney Howard (Arrowsmith, Dodsworth)

Based on
Gone with the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

The Story
The American South, 1861: wealthy teenager Scarlett O’Hara spends her days attending parties and flirting with her many admirers, though she only really has eyes for her neighbour, Ashley. After he declares his intention to marry his cousin Melanie, a furious Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a practically-minded gent who only serves his own interests. When the American Civil War breaks out, Scarlett has to apply her manipulative nature to survival, as down the years she engages in a love/hate relationship with the similarly-tempered Rhett.

Our Heroes
Scarlett O’Hara is the perennial belle of the ball in her Southern community, until the American Civil War comes and she’s forced to grow up. Her innate selfishness and tendency to manipulate people (or try to, at least) helps her survive the conflict in more-or-less one piece. Equally self concerned is Rhett Butler, a gentleman not afraid to stand up to Scarlett, which is why they clash, and why they’re probably made for one another.

Our Villains
Those damn Unionists, with their trying to get rid of slavery and everything!

Best Supporting Character
Hattie McDaniel is memorable, likeable, and Oscar-winning as the O’Haras’ maid, Mammy. Whether her performance was a good thing for the African American community or just an ‘Uncle Tom’ is another matter.

Memorable Quote
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — Rhett Butler

Memorable Scene
In the streets of Atlanta, Scarlett comes across the casualties from the battle. First we only see her face as she comes upon a shocking sight. Then it cuts to a long-shot: Scarlett stood by some soldiers, a couple of wounded men on the ground before her. The camera tracks back as Scarlett walks forward, gradually revealing the field of wounded soldiers she’s walking among. It continues to pull back, up into the sky, for a full 55 seconds, the injured stretching as far as the eye can see as a damaged Confederate flag flutters into view in the foreground.

Technical Wizardry
The Technicolor photography by Ernest Haller is absolutely gorgeous, and looks better than ever nowadays thanks to new restoration techniques developed in 2004 (12 years ago?! Where does time go?) That restoration is where the real wizardry lies. Gone with the Wind was shot with Technicolor’s three-strip process, in which a prism split the light entering the camera into its green, red and blue parts, which were each exposed on a strip of black-and-white film. These strips were then dyed the appropriate colour, before being combined onto a new film to create the final full-colour print. Naturally this process was liable to human error: misalign one of the strips by even the slightest amount and you get errors; small and almost unnoticeable, maybe, but less than perfection. In 2004, they went back to the original three strips and, using complicated new computer programs, realigned them from scratch. This perfect alignment revealed details that have always been on the film but would never have been seen before, meaning these movies (they also did it for the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Adventures of Robin Hood) literally looked better than they ever had. Magic.

Letting the Side Down
There are a raft of criticisms that can be levelled at Gone with the Wind, from its depiction of black characters, to making the South seem not so bad, to the faithfulness of its adaptation (too much). The second half is certainly less focused and less memorable than the first, but the whole overcomes that, for me.

Making of
The search for an actress to play the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara is legendary — it was even dramatised in an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1980. In all it lasted two years, including an open casting call that interviewed 1,400 unknowns (useless for casting, great for publicity), and the formal screen-testing of 31 actresses, including the likes of Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more. In the end, it of course went to a young British actress, then unknown in America, called Vivien Leigh. The rest is screen history.

Next time…
Fans and filmmakers alike tried to get Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel until her death in 1949. In the ’70s, her brother agreed a deal with MGM and Universal under which a novel would be written and simultaneously adapted into a film. Despite a 775-page manuscript being produced, the deal fell apart. Numerous sequel novels have been published, and in 1994 one of these, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, was adapted into a miniseries starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett and Timothy Dalton as Rhett, with a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, John Gielgud, and Ann-Margret. Apparently it’s not very good.

Awards
8 Oscars (Picture, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Director, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing)
1 Honorary Award from AMPAS (for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”)
1 Technical Achievement Award from AMPAS (for being “pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment”)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Clark Gable), Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects)

What the Critics Said in 1939
“There has never been a picture like David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind. It is so true to Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War, as it was fought in and around Atlanta, that the film is of the same epic quality as the book. […] Vivien Leigh, the little English girl imported to play the role of Scarlett, gives a magnificent performance. No other actress in Hollywood, or on the New York stage, could have come close to equalling it. […] She is pert and beautiful, lacking in erudition but the possessor of all the arts and allure of the vital female. She is quick-tempered, selfish, untruthful, sturdy and wilful as a lioness. No attempt has been made to gloss over Scarlett’s weaknesses and sins. As she is, she dominates the picture from its gay and light-hearted beginning to its tragic close.” — Kate Cameron, New York Daily News

What the Critics Said in 1973
“The most interesting way to consider GWTW today is in comparison with the film that may eventually surpass it in profits, The Godfather. Look at the similarities. Both originated in best-selling American novels. Both are very long. Both are about predators. Both are ultra-American yet are very closely allied to Europe (Walter Scott and Sicily). And, most important, both live within codes of honor, and both codes are romances. William R. Taylor has shown, in Cavalier and Yankee, that the ‘Walter Scott’ antebellum South was largely a literary fabrication, concocted at the time, not retrospectively; as for The Godfather, our newspapers show us daily that ‘They Only Kill Each Other’ is just another escape hatch to allow us to blink facts. ‘Us,’ by the way, means the world, not just the United States, since the whole world flocks to both films. And that’s interesting, too, because it leads to a difference, not a likeness. In a new age, when the ‘realistic’ Godfather is packing them in, the romantic GWTW is still popular. There’s a crumb of comfort in that: at least culture is still more pluralist than some of our propagandists would have us believe.” — Stanley Kauffmann, The Atlantic

What the Critics Said in 2015
“Its stereotype of happy slaves and kindly masters has never been more wince-inducing […] But no one watches Gone with the Wind for historical accuracy. What keeps us coming back is four-hours of epic romance in gorgeous Technicolor. Slavery, the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, a street knee-deep in dead soldiers—all just a backdrop to the main event, Scarlett ’n’ Rhett. The feminist jury is still out on Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nothing but a serial husband-thief? Or a resilient modern woman doing what she can to survive? You decide.” — Cath Clarke, Time Out

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last. Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. […] Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s ‘like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail’.” — Three Rows Back

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I briefly reviewed Gone with the Wind after a re-watch way back in 2007, when I assessed that “the direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease. It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made.”

Verdict

Last week I wrote about the enduring mass popularity of The Godfather, and here’s another case in point. Gone with the Wind may not rack up the ratings in the same circles as Coppola’s opus, but it has consistently been voted America’s most favourite movie, and its numerous massively successful re-releases mean that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a story spanning many years and many miles, passing by historical events in the process. However, at its core it’s the story of a tumultuous romance between two people, who may love each other or may hate each other, but who, with their unique, selfish, manipulative perspectives, are surely perfect for each other.

#42 will be… #42 will be… #42 will be…

Lincoln (2012)

2016 #62
Steven Spielberg | 151 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing.


Daniel Day-Lewis allegedly stars in this account of the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, which might more pertinently be called The 13th Amendment due to where its focus lies. I say “allegedly” because I’m not convinced they didn’t find a way to resurrect Lincoln to appear as himself, then just pretended it was Day-Lewis acting.

Although this project started life as a traditional biopic of the 16th President of the United States, as director-producer Steven Spielberg developed it over several years, it was eventually whittled down to what we have here. Most reviews and the like describe it as being about the final four months of Lincoln’s life, and in a literal sense that’s true because the last couple of months are covered at the tail-end of the movie. However, it’s really about one month: January 1865.

With the American Civil War not yet over, though clearly in its final stages, and an election recently reaffirming Lincoln’s presidency but bringing changes in the House of Representatives — changes that, importantly, don’t take effect for a few more weeks — the president decides now is the time to push through the unpopular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery. He wants it passed because it’s the right thing to do, though there is far from consensus on this point. However, the passing of the amendment would likely bring about the end of the war, which leads some to back it even though they don’t agree with the amendment in and of itself; and the forthcoming changes in the House mean there are a raft of senators soon to be looking for new jobs, whose votes might be bought with the promise of a cushty position in the near future.

If that all sounds very political, it is. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Lincoln plays like a period version of The West Wing, but it bears repeating because it’s true. If the idea of men standing (and sitting) in rooms debating political manoeuvres — who might be persuaded to vote which way, and how they might be persuaded, and what they will want in return, and what deals need to be struck, and so on and so forth — sounds like it might make for an engrossing movie, then there’s a fair chance Lincoln will be your cup of tea. A not-insignificant proportion of viewers protest that it is boring, however, and while I in no way agree with them, your mileage may vary.

From a filmmaking perspective, this is first-class work. Spielberg shows a more restrained side to his proclivities than in the similarly-themed Amistad, but exhibits perhaps a little more flair than in his next film, Bridge of Spies. Much like that latter movie, his sentimental streak only really manifests itself in one short scene right near the end… though historians who contest the commonly-taught history of Lincoln as an upstanding man (a view this film clearly maintains) may argue the whole film gives in to this aspect of the director’s work. Either way, the film is a visual triumph, its production design award well-earned. Even more so, however, is the work of Spielberg’s regular DP, Janusz Kaminski, whose candle-and-gaslight photography of interiors is breathtakingly good. The whole picture exhibits a richness and a sharpness that, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if 4K might be a really worthwhile idea after all.

The real meat of the film comes in the performances — not the actual political debate, because we all know how that should go, but the men performing said debate. Of course the title performance dominates the movie, but Day-Lewis does not. As I alluded to at the start, it’s hard to see the actor’s presence in the role — it’s not a performer, it is Abraham Lincoln. Not to do anyone else in the film — or, indeed, any other performance in any film ever — a disservice, but Day-Lewis embodies the President in a way few other actors have ever embodied a role. It’s quite remarkable.

It’s a real testament to the rest of the cast, then, that in the face of this powerhouse performance they all do such sterling work. Sally Field tackles a complex, potentially thankless role with aplomb. The movie is about the titular man, so her scenes are really about illuminating the President’s psyche and so creating the biopic side of the movie (i.e. the reason why it isn’t actually called The 13th Amendment), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t make Molly a believable human being in her own right. Tommy Lee Jones also stands out as hardline abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens doesn’t get on with Lincoln and thinks the 13th Amendment doesn’t go far enough, but will he concede it’s better than nothing in a social climate where many think the opposite? And then there’s James Spader as behind-the-scenes political persuader W.N. Bilbo (yes, like the Hobbit). When he first tumbles onto the screen he looks like a misplaced comedy creation, and he does bring some much needed levity to the film, but in a measured way that doesn’t tip the scales too far. It makes the whole better because of it.

They’re still the tip of the iceberg, however, because in the film’s expansive two-and-a-half-hour running time there’s space for accomplished performances from David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, David Oyelowo, Adam Driver… I’m just naming them in the order they are in the cast listing. Some of them are only in one scene. I still think I’ve missed some people.

For me, there are few black marks (unfortunate choice of phrase…) to be held against Lincoln. Does it give in to Spielberg’s sentimentality? Yeah, a little — but it’s a long, long way from the worst case of that, and I think you’d be nitpicky (or have a different opinion on history, which, you know, is a matter of opinion) to criticise the film too harshly for that. As to whether it’s boring, that’s entirely a matter of preference. If you think The West Wing is boring, people who write lists of “the greatest TV shows ever” will disagree with you, and you also likely won’t like Lincoln. I like The West Wing, though.

Lincoln is going to be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, and in many respects that’s fine, because (as I’ve said a couple of times now) it is an astonishing piece of acting. Fortunately for the viewer seeking out that performance, there’s an awful lot more to Spielberg’s polished political drama.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Lincoln is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The General (1926)

2015 #29
Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman | 77 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English) | U

The GeneralPoorly reviewed and a box office flop on its release, Buster Keaton’s The General has undergone a stark re-evaluation since: the United States National Film Registry deemed it so “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” that it was added to the registry in its first year, alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars; these days, it rates on both public-voted popular lists (the IMDb Top 250 at #133) and critics’ polls (34th on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll). Does it live up to such a reputation?

Set at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Keaton plays a Southern train engineer who is refused permission to sign up for the army. When agents of the North hijack a train, he sets out to prove himself by giving chase. Hilarity ensues.

Believe it or not, The General is based on a real incident from the war… which was considerably grimmer than the farce presented here. Like the film, however, the South did win… except in real life the South were the bad guys (right?), so that’s no good. Anyway, such things shouldn’t trouble us here — this is a comedy, not a history lesson. That said, I must confess I didn’t laugh all that much — although some of it is quite funny — but, in spite of that, I rather loved it. Whatever the intention, it worked for me as a kind of comedic action-adventure (a genre we more often associate with more modern eras, I’d wager), rather than as an out-and-out comedy. Some of it is quite genuinely tense rather than purely amusing.

The GeneralIt was reportedly a very expensive film, and it looks it: there are tonnes of extras, not to mention elaborate choreography… of trains! Who knew old steam trains were so agile? There’s impressive physicality on display from Keaton, but the well-timed movements of those big old locomotives are quite extraordinary, especially for the era (I mean, for the past couple of decades you’ve been able to do pretty much anything thanks to a spot of computer-controlled what-have-you. Not much of that going on in the 1920s.)

Sometimes watching Classic Movies is almost a chore of noteworthiness or “good for its time” import; other times, they still offer pure enjoyment, however many decades later. I’m not sure a silent comedy is ever going to curry favour with all modern viewers, but The General is one that still has the power to transcend the (perceived) limitations of its era.

5 out of 5

The General was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

2007 #93a
Victor Fleming | 224 mins | DVD | PG / G

Gone with the WindI thought I’d seen Gone With the Wind but, watching it again, it’s clear I hadn’t properly.

This is partly because I first saw it on TV, in two halves, a week apart, each starting at 1am. I just about managed to follow the story, in between drifting off for whole chunks. Another reason is the quality of the restored print on the DVD: it looks stunning, every frame is beautiful; it’s a shame no films look like this today.

The performances are uniformly excellent, especially (of course) Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable; though special mention must be made of the fantastic Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel as Mammy (the first African-American to be nominated for and win an Oscar, and deservedly so). The direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease.

It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made. First time round I just thought it was very good; now it’s firmly one of my favourites.

5 out of 5