Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone With The Wind (1939) - Part 1

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts."
- Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Mitchell)

It's an understatement to say that Gone with the Wind is a monumental achievement of Hollywood filmmaking. No other film produced by a major American studio has even approached the sheer scope of this film, be it visually, romantically, or lengthy. The film is the result of a Herculean effort to turn Margaret Mitchell's acclaimed novel about an Old South family struggling to find a place in the brave new world of post-Civil War America into a sweeping romantic epic. Casting took nearly two years, post-production lasted until just a few weeks before the film's Atlanta premiere, the screenplay underwent multiple revisions, and three different directors - George Cukor, Sam Wood, and Victor Fleming - cycled through principal photography (only Fleming was credited). The film cost Selznick International Pictures $3.85 million, making it the most expensive film ever produced at the time (a record it would hold for 20 years, until Ben-Hur came along).


Despite all of those troubles, though, the film went on to become an enormous success. To this day, if adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing film in American history. The characters of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) are among the most iconic in all of cinema, and many lines of dialogue have been quoted (and misquoted) endlessly over the years. The film's a lasting testament to the power that Hollywood could yield in creating a cultural juggernaut, and serves a rose-colored vision of "classic Hollywood."

Yet the film has not been immune to criticism. Over the years, many have decried it for celebrating the antebellum South, viewing slave-holding society wistfully as "the good ol' days" and downplaying the more disturbing aspects of the plantation system. Watching through the film's first half for this week's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (the second half will be discussed next Tuesday, August 26), what's most striking about how the film actually dismantles those notions. Scarlett's tale is less about her romantic endeavors in a war-torn environment, but her desperate clinging to a world that is quickly crumbling around her.

More after the jump.


After opening with a musical overture, the film introduces the setting with a brief, on-screen text prologue. This has been the source of many of the criticisms against the film, as it describes the South as "a land of cavaliers and cotton fields" and "of master and of slave" where "gallantry took it's last bow" and was populated by "Knights and their ladies fair."

Though this is certainly a very rosy and problematic way of looking at it, as the film progresses, there's a sense that those words had a hint of sarcasm to them. Ostensibly, this is a story about the glory of the Old South and its bygone way of life. But it's framed in such a way that audiences are meant to see the folly of that idea. The myth of the Old South is just that: a myth, romanticized over the years but, to borrow the film's own words, "no more than a dream remembered."


Gone with the Wind pulls this grand theme off by channelling it into the narrative of its protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara. Scarlett is still a child as the film begins: petulant, selfish, and manipulative, upset that her love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), is to be married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), rather than to her. Scarlett responds as any young, immature woman would: she flirts with practically every other man at the Wilkes' Twelve Oaks Plantation during a ball in honor of Ashley, she pitches a fit, she schemes of ways to steal Ashley away from Melanie, and generally behaves like a brat. Thanks to Leigh's terrific performance, Scarlett remains sympathetic, but she doesn't exactly make it easy.

Then she locks eyes with Rhett Butler, the visitor from Charleston. It's obvious that there's something about this man that gets under her skin, but she doesn't know how to respond to it. He's suave, but sarcastic. It's not that Rhett doesn't fit into this antebellum society; it's that he actively rejects it, butting heads with the other men as they cheer on the prospects of war with the Yankees. Rhett doesn't think the South will be able to win because they don't have artillery or transportation. Naturally, that's made him a pariah of sorts.


Right away, the film establishes a thematic dichotomy between Scarlett and Rhett. Scarlett becomes representative of the Old South stubbornly holding on in the midst of collapse, while Rhett stands in for what the South could become. In this sense, Ashley - who's off fighting the war for most of the film - becomes a totem for the idea of the Old South. Even when there's no hope left, Scarlett refuses to let go of the idea that Ashley could one day marry her and love her forever. No matter how much the events of the film try to disabuse her of this notion, she remains steadfastly committed to him, regardless of the destruction around her.

And the film doesn't shy away from depicting that destruction in resplendent ways. From the slowly-withdrawing crane shot that reveals the dead and wounded at an Atlanta train depot…


To the silhouette of Atlanta burning to the ground under General Sherman's attack…


The film has no shortage of sumptuous images of the war's destructive power. Cinematographers Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan made exceptional use of Technicolor with this film, particularly with the ways the reds, oranges, and yellows really pop. There's a reason this film is remembered for being so gorgeous: there are very few other examples of Technicolor being used this memorably.

As the quote at the beginning of this essay suggests, it ultimately all comes back to the land. The film's first half ends in the same place where it begins: at Tara, the O'Hara's plantation. However, where the landscape was beautiful and breathtaking in the beginning, it ends with the house still standing, but everything else decimated. Scarlett's mother is dead, her sisters are bed-ridden, her father has been driven insane by grief. Only Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and Pork (Oscar Polk) remain amongst the slaves. Scarlett has to take care of herself for the first time in her life, and she has no idea what to do. Everything she's known is gone.

The film visually bookends this idea, too. In the early scene where Mr. O'Hara explains to Scarlett why she should love the land, the camera pulls back to reveal the following landscape:


The frame is warm and inviting, with the soft orange glow of the sky making for a striking backdrop for Scarlett and her father. The land is green, the tree is lush with foliage, and Tara stands in the distance. It's an image that sums up the film's "romantic" quality, and it feels like it's dropped in from a dream.

Compare it to this frame from the end of the first half. Here, Scarlett has returned to Tara, but the scene is quite different.

*Best Shot*

For one, it's a reverse shot of the aforementioned, framed from the other side of the divide. The once-gentle sky is now oppressively orange, almost as if it's been charred by the war. The tree is now barren, and the landscape is now blackened. Whereas she once had someone by her side, Scarlett now stands alone, her shadow cast against an empty sky. That's the most striking feature of this frame: how much empty space there is compared to its earlier companion. The war has altered the landscape and marked the end of antebellum society, but the land remains.

It still doesn't matter to Scarlett. She clings to the past, an obsession that will ultimately be her downfall.

*Click here for Part 2*

2 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

ooh, i really love this. what a smart choice for a glorious shot recalling and commenting on another glorious shot.

it's amazing that GWTW which went through 3 directors still has so much attention to detail and follow through from act to act

Brian Hemsworth said...

Strange trivia I unearthed doing research for a documentary on the West San Fernando Valley, in northwest Los Angeles. Turns out the scene you're talking about, the reverse angle, aka "I will never go hungry again", was the one shot from the film that MGM shot on Lasky Mesa, a hill just above where I live. The cinematographer(s) (either Ray Rennahan or Ernest Haller, both credited on the Academy Award won for it) cleverly used the mesa, which is actually a sloping hill. They shot the scene looking slightly uphill, which let them crop out the hills in the distance. It was likely shot in the late day, facing west, so what was likely a beautiful sunset looks like a sunrise in Technicolor.

- Brian Hemsworth