Sunday 8 December 2013

Gone With the Wind

It's not often one can report a miracle, but last week my local cinema held a one-off revival screening of Gone With the Wind. I eagerly attended and I can testify that, during the entire four hours, not one person used their phone.

I'd seen the movie before, decades ago, but it had faded in my memory and I was unprepared for how impressive it was. The early colour photography by Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes was immediately magnificent. It was often more expressionist than realistic. Rhett's farewell to Scarlett after the burning of Atlanta takes place in a world which is entirely a garish, gorgeous red. Scarlett's frightened nocturnal return to her ravaged plantation is a spectral blue. The scene where she finds her dead mother laid out is a jaundiced yellow.

Also stunning were William Cameron Menzies' set designs, the special effects by Jack Cosgrove, and Max Steiner's music. The cast were impressive: Clark Gable is predictably charismatic as Rhett Butler while the real surprise is Vivien Leigh, unforgettable as the scheming little tart Scarlett O'Hara. She's an English actress, who beat out every female star in America for the part. Interestingly, her impeccable Southern belle accent slips a little when she's playing scenes with Leslie Howard, another fine actor who was also English.

The brainchild of producer David O. Selznick, the film's named director was Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with uncredited contributions by George Cukor, a specialist in women's pictures and musicals and Sam Wood, who worked with the Marx Brothers.

But I'm chiefly concerned here with the story and screenplay. As the presence of three directors suggests, Gone with the Wind was a troubled production (known as "Selznick's folly") and there were also a lot of hands on the script. The sole credited writer is Sidney Howard but Oliver HP Garrett, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten and Ben Hecht are also known to be involved. 

It was based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell. This book was originally entitled Mules in Horses' Harness until her publisher insisted on something less catastrophically crappy. I haven't read the book, but I suspect that it's responsible for the movie's fatal flaw.

Gone With the Wind is entirely gripping for the first two hours, which sets up the characters and propels them into the inferno of the Civil War. And even when the war ends, after the thoughtfully provided intermission, it exerts a terrific narrative grip. Scarlett is trying to rebuild her destroyed plantation when she is visited by a renegade Union soldier. The deserter walks up the stairs towards Scarlett, intent on rape — but first, robbery. "What's that you've got in your hand?" he leers.

What Scarlett has in her hand is a gun and she shoots him dead at point blank range. Scarlett's sister in law Melanie, ill in bed, is drawn by the sound and comes running in her nightdress. Scarlett gets her to strip naked on the spot and uses the nightdress to mop up the soldier's blood.

There is also some wonderful dialogue. Rhett Butler insists on seeing Scarlett after her latest husband has died. Scarlett couldn't have cared less about the dead spouse, but is theoretically in mourning, working her way through a bottle of cognac.  "I told him you was prostrate with grief," says her servant, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). She has no illusions about her boss: knowing that Scarlett has designs on Melanie's husband she says, "You'll be waiting for him like a spider!" Rhett has no illusions, either. "You're a heartless creature," he says. "It's part of your charm."

The last hour or so gets hopelessly bogged down in the dull melodrama of the love triangle between Gable, Leigh and Howard. But up until then, Gone With the Wind is a revelation.

(Image credits: all the posters are from AllPosters, where you can actually purchase them.)

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