“Gone With the Wind” is still “Gone With the Wind.” At 75, the behemoth period romance may no longer hold the record for most Academy Awards (it won 10, three movies have since won 11) or be the all-time highest grossing film of all time (accounting for inflation, though, it’s probably sold the most tickets), but it still shows the wannabes how it’s done.
On Sunday, September 28th, a near capacity crowd paid modern ticket prices to see “Gone With the Wind” at The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, one of 650 theaters showing a 4K digital restoration in honor of the 75th anniversary of the landmark movie. Fathom Events, in partnership with Turner Classic Movies, sponsored the event.
“Gone With the Wind” is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Margaret Mitchell, a journalist and lifelong resident of Atlanta. Her grandfather was a veteran of the Civil War who made a fortune selling lumber during the Restoration and rebuilding of Atlanta after the war. Both these elements would inform Mitchell’s thousand page-plus novel, which tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a young southern belle whose world is shattered by the Civil War, and who will stop at nothing to restore her family’s plantation to its former glory.
Producer David O. Selznick was badgered into buying the movie rights for the novel, and almost immediately found he had a tiger by the tail. The book was long, with myriad supporting characters and subplots, and provided a substantial challenge to adapt. On top of that, virtually no movie property had ever been saddled with this level of public interest before it even got in front of cameras. Audience interest was all well and good, but millions of people had strong opinions on casting. Who should play Scarlett O’Hara was the subject of many newspaper polls and magazine articles. The answers were all over the place. There was no consensus.
As to the character of Rhett Butler, the roguish Civil War blockade runner who wants to possess Scarlett, even though she maintains she’s in love with her bookish, and married, neighbor, Ashley Wilkes, there was only one answer:
The number one male box office attraction in the world did indeed seem perfect for the role. He was also under exclusive contract to rival studio M-G-M, which to make matters worse was ruled with an iron fist by Selznick’s father-in-law, and former boss, Louis B. Mayer. Selznick eventually made a deal to get Gable on loan, “giving up” distribution to M-G-M. (In fact, that was a huge bonus. The M-G-M distribution machinery was far superior to anything otherwise available to Selznick, whose pictures were usually distributed by the smaller and less efficient United Artists.)
Scarlett O’Hara was ultimately played by Vivien Leigh, a gorgeous young British actress who was virtually unknown to American audiences. She was dating Laurence Olivier, who brought her to meet Selznick very late in pre-production, when it looked like Paulette Goddard would ultimately nab the coveted role. In fact the evening she had her first reading, a mammoth crew was about to stage the burning of Atlanta on the backlot, burning old sets from “Intolerance” and “King Kong” with stunt doubles standing in for Gable and the still-uncast Scarlett.
Filming “Gone With the Wind” turned out to be an epic undertaking in its own right. It took six writers, four directors and and a nearly unheard of $4 million to bring the movie to the screen, but audiences lined up in droves. “GWTW” was the reigning box office champ until “The Sound of Music” finally put up higher grosses in the sixties. M-G-M’s remake of “Ben-Hur” won 11 Academy Awards, next to “Wind’s” 10. In the decades before movies were even occasionally available on television, let alone home video, most movies disappeared into obscurity after their initial theatrical runs. “Gone With the Wind” was re-released many times over the years, making it as familiar to subsequent generations as it was to the audiences who first saw it in 1939.
75 years later, “Gone With the Wind” retains its power and majesty. The movie was meant to be on the big screen, and even though it was shot in the pre-Panavision 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which will fit standard definition TV screens without losing much peripheral image, it is a different experience in the theater. In particular, TV diminishes the raw, sexual magnetism of Gable, who was, after all, a star of the silver screen and not TV. In theaters, the first shot of Gable, at the bottom of grand staircase leering confidently at Vivien Leigh, still draws gasps from female audiences.
Gable, apparently, did not want to do the movie, and was insecure about living up to the audience’s preconception of the role – ironic, since apparently their preconception was essentially Gable.
But “Gone With the Wind” remains one of the great Hollywood epics, and one of the great Hollywood romances. Decades before “Titanic,” this was the one that showed them how it was done. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the movie’s depiction of African Americans became controversial. Inarguably, the most prominent African American characters are slaves, then servants. It is probably best to recall that the movie, like the book on which it is based, is a product of its times, and nothing was done thoughtlessly. The “N word,” which is used in the novel, was not permitted in the movie, and a sympathetic reference to the Ku Klux Klan was changed into a less organized vigilante action. The KKK itself does not appear in the film. In 1939, there were some elderly people still living who had early childhood memories of being slaves, a point not lost on Selznick and his associates. Selznick, himself a Jew, was well aware of the dire turn of events in Nazi Germany and recent lynchings in the south.
Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to receive an Academy Award, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammie” in the film.
“Gone With the Wind” still shows them how it’s done. At four hours long, it’s as long as virtually any mainstream Hollywood movie, but only your bladder will give away its length. “Gone With the Wind” tells its story with brisk economy. It remains one of the screen’s great romances, and it’s spectacle still has the power to impress. If you haven’t seen “Gone With the Wind,” you don’t know the whole story of the big Hollywood movie, and if you haven’t seen “Gone With the Wind” on the big screen, you haven’t seen “Gone With the Wind.”
There will be two additional local screenings of the Fathom Events/Turner Classic Movies 75th anniversary presentation of “Gone With the Wind,” on Wednesday, October 1st, at The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM.