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Column: An American treasure, 'GWTW' turns 80

December 12, 2019 at 3:00 a.m.

The burning of Atlanta, the majesty of Tara and Scarlett O'Hara's pursuit of a married man: All come to mind regarding the epic film "Gone With the Wind."

So grandiose was David O. Selznick's movie production of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel that critics couldn't wait to savage "GWTW" when it reached the screen 80 years ago this month. Those who would trash the film received their comeuppance, to borrow a line from Orson Welles' 1942 movie adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel, "The Magnificent Ambersons."

Frank S. Nugent, in a famous review for The New York Times, said he was pleasantly surprised not to dislike the film. 'Gone With (the) Wind enthralls audience with magnificence" read the banner headline in the Atlanta Constitution after opening night in the Georgia capital.

The public, given what it wanted, rushed to movie theatres to see Clark Gable portray Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. Selznick, a master showman, chose Leigh, a relatively unknown English actress, over "practically the entire female population of Hollywood (and in many cases the rest of the nation) between the ages of 17 and 40," according to one source.

Leigh won a deserved Oscar as Best Actress over two-time honoree Bette Davis, future winner Greer Garson and the mystical Greta Garbo among others. Mitchell's novel begins, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm," which some think refers to her personality instead of her physical beauty. Be that as it may, Leigh is word perfect as the cunning Scarlett, who vows in the final scene never to be hungry again, one who loves none of the three men she marries.

Gable, the greatest male star of that era, is said to be the working ideal for Mitchell in writing her massive (and only) novel. As the dashing Butler, the visitor from Charleston, S.C., is smitten with O'Hara when they meet at Twelve Oaks, a plantation down the road from Scarlett's equally ornate Tara. In his famous first entrance, Gable is pictured looking upward at Leigh climbing a staircase. As much as a 1939 film could allow, there was lust in his eyes.

My late mom, fascinated with Mitchell's novel and the movie, liked to say of Scarlett, "She couldn't see the forest for the trees." Oblivious to Butler's affections, O'Hara pines after Ashley Wilkes, the oldest child of Twelve Oaks' founder. In keeping with family tradition, Wilkes becomes engaged to his first cousin, Melanie Hamilton, played with precious naivete and willful blindness by Olivia de Havilland.

Wilkes, played by Englishman Leslie Howard in an effeminate manner, respectfully acknowledges O'Hara's flirtations while claiming loyalty to Hamilton. Ashley, alas, is soon off to fight for the South in the Civil War. Joining the battle is Melanie's brother Charles, who unwisely picks a fight with Butler at Twelve Oaks over the South's chances against the Union Army. Charles Hamilton joins the Confederate Army (he would not return) after marrying Scarlett O'Hara, not the first time she would take romance on the rebound.

Director Victor Fleming depicts the Civil War's aftermath rather than its battles. A crane shot depicting wounded Confederate soldiers lying by the hundreds in Atlanta's train station is among the most famous in movie history. It is exceeded only by the burning of Atlanta, from which Butler commands a team of horses and leads himself and O'Hara from the holocaust.

The war ends with the Union Army victorious, and with it the age of chivalry Fleming displays magnificently in the film's first act. Butler makes a fortune on the black market as a soldier for hire, in and out of Atlanta to check on Scarlett while keeping time at a brothel operated by Belle Watling. O'Hara, with Tara virtually destroyed and her father (played by Thomas Mitchell, 1939 Best Supporting Actor in John Ford's epic "Stagecoach") gone mad, uses her own wits and becomes a successful businesswoman.

Husband No. 2 for Scarlett is Frank Kennedy, a storekeeper who (like Charles Hamilton earlier) dies during the movie. In time, O'Hara will marry Rhett Butler and the two will have a child, Bonnie, whose tragic death and Scarlett's unrequited love for Ashley produces the movie's famous ending.

Leaving his wife, Butler is almost out the door when O'Hara asks the man who has loved her all along what she should do next. Butler's answer, one of the most famous screen lines in history and straight from Mitchell's novel: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

What makes Gable's exit work, as it has for 80 years, is that Butler means what he says. Scarlett O'Hara is literally the one who got away from a man who could have any other woman he wanted. The unrequited love he feels for O'Hara has affected readers of Mitchell's novel and viewers of Selznick's film since FDR was president and Adolf Hitler terrorized the world.

"Gone With the Wind" received eight Academy Awards, Best Picture included. For more than 30 years, it was Hollywood's all-time box office champion. A college friend claims to have watched the movie dozens of times, and I do not doubt his word. A family member is said to have read Mitchell's epic in one sitting, and then fainted.

In one of Hollywood's proudest moments, Hattie McDaniel, playing Mammy, was named Best Supporting Actress, the first Oscar won by a black performer. Revisionist historians discredit the film for its racial stereotypes, yet "Gone With the Wind" has stood the test of time unlike, say, "The Color Purple" from Steven Spielberg, who can do no wrong in critics' eyes.

Some cannot understand how Gable was passed over for Best Actor, the award going to Robert Donat for "Goodbye Mr. Chips," a role reprised years later by Peter O'Toole. A past Best Actor for "It Happened One Night," Gable was never better than in "Gone With the Wind," saying years later that the role kept him famous.

Leigh, known offscreen for marrying Laurence Olivier, received a second Best Actress statue for 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire," Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' novel set in New Orleans. Playing the coquettish Blanche DuBois, fading in and out of sanity while living with sister Stella (Best Supporting Actress Kim Hunter) and her brutish husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando reprising his New York stage role), Leigh plays a Southern woman down on her luck in harrowing style. Leigh, as Blanche, could draw upon her screen experience.

"Only Scarlett," wrote one reviewer in admiration, "could do it better."

Editorial on 12/12/2019

Print Headline: An American treasure, 'GWTW' turns 80


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