Revisiting Gone With The Wind

Gone With The Wind is the most successful movie in Hollywood box office history. When adjusted for monetary inflation, the box office takings for Gone With The Wind currently stands at over three and a half-billion dollars.

Since it premiered in Atlanta in December 1939, Gone With The Wind has been successfully re-released on numerous occasions, most notably in 1967 when it was shown in new 70-millimeter widescreen and full stereophonic sound.

Audiences are still fascinated with Gone With The Wind. Set in the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods, the movie tells the epic story of the manipulative Scarlett O’Hara, the spoilt daughter of an Irish-born Georgia planter. Scarlett is besotted with aristocrat Ashley Wilkes, but he is due to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton. Although Scarlett’s charms are noticed by the roguish Rhett Butler, she continues to yearn for Ashley.

Although the movie was a critical triumph on release and winning a then-unprecedented ten Academy Awards, Gone With The Wind has been critically reappraised throughout the years.

Re-releases and television

Metro Goldwyn Mayer bought the rights to Gone With The Wind in 1942 and re-released it in the same year. The movie was re-released again in 1947, 1954 and 1961. The 1954 version is the first time Gone With The Wind was shown in widescreen, but the 1967 re-release was shown in 70mm. The cropping of the academy ratio prompted heavy criticisms for altering the movie’s composition and color. 

The movie received its US television premiere in 1976, but UK and Irish viewers had to wait before it the big television premiere, screened over two nights on December 25th and 26th, 1981.

The last UK and Ireland theatrical release of Gone With The Wind was in 1981 and it so happened to be the first time this viewer had watched the great movie. The movie shown was the 1967 widescreen version, with stereophonic sound. Despite the criticisms, the 70mm big-screen release was a delight to watch on the big screen.

The UK and Ireland television premiere of Gone With The Wind was screened in the original academy ratio frame. Even the title credits scrolled across the screen, which did not in the widescreen print.

Most critics in 1981 were still adamant that Gone With The Wind was a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling and gorgeous to look at.

Recent 4K restoration screening

Revisiting Gone With The Wind again at a recent BFI screening, some 39 years after watching it for the first time at a local Irish movie theater, was special. This presentation was an impressive 4K digital restoration. David O’Selznick’s ambitious production looks incredible; Victor Fleming’s direction (including George Cukor and Sam Wood) is almost perfect, and Ray Rennahan’s color cinematography is incredibly beautiful, and every scene is beautifully complemented by Max Steiner’s memorable score which bursts with excitement into a fanfare at the end of the overture before the opening credits.

Lead Performances

What seems to shine the most after all these years are the performances. The casting is mostly perfect. Vivien Leigh is particularly impressive. Vivien spoke with a British upper-class accent, or received pronunciation, and sounded nothing like Scarlett in real life, yet she speaks convincingly in every scene.

Clark Gable was always the favorite to play Rhett Butler. His on-screen charisma, charm and good looks made Clark the perfect star to play the role. His performance is impeccable and unforgettable.

Olivia De Havilland, who is still with us at this time of writing, is well cast as Melanie, but the English actor of stage and screen Leslie Howard was reluctant to play Ashley, and his rather lackluster performance contrasts with his impressive British film work, such as his Higgins in Gabriel Pascal’s impressive 1938 film production of Pygmalion.

All the other performers are excellent, especially Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett’s father Gerard and Barbara O’Neil as Scarlett’s mother Ellen.

Racial criticisms and achievements

The depiction of race in the film has always been problematic. Gone With The Wind has been criticized for perpetuating Civil War myths and black stereotypes. The house servants seem happily docile, the non-mentioned Ku Klux Klan seems to be portrayed in a positive light and the story is often criticized as being a white supremacist view of the past.

However, it can be too easy for cynics to dismiss or ignore the huge achievements of the African American cast members. By a little research, it becomes clear that these talented actors were also pioneers within the industry. Despite criticism from some activists for accepting the role, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Mammy, and to deservedly win this prestigious award at a time of racial segregation is quite remarkable.

Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy was derided by many activists throughout the years, most notably by Malcolm X and McQueen herself who felt her part was demeaning. During her various interviews throughout the years, the exceptionally intelligent and engaging Butterfly McQueen was able to balance her disregard for the role whilst respecting the integrity of the production.

Accomplished stage actor Oscar Polk played Pork. Oscar Polk appeared in his first Broadway play The Trial of Mary Gugan in 1927 and his other Broadway credits include Once in a Lifetime in 1930 and Dark Eyes in 1943. Oscar Polk sadly died in 1949 as the victim of a tragic accident in Time Square, when he was hit by a taxicab. Oscar was due to play a major role in the play Leading Lady but his part was given to performer, writer, and leading civil rights activist Ossie Davis.

Oscar Polk (centre) on Broadway in the play Both Your Houses in 1934

Most of the African American actors have minor roles, such as actor and comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Uncle Peter and Everett Brown as Sam.

African American actors struggled against prejudice in society and the industry throughout the years. Some of the members of the production were not comfortable with some of the racist attitudes. Clark Gable is on record for being outraged with the ban on the African American cast members from attending the premiere in Atlanta, especially his friend Hattie McDaniel.

There soon would be better roles, such as Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca, but much change was needed for more inclusivity in the industry. Much change is still needed today.

To revisit and appreciate

There are other uncomfortable issues in the movie, most notably the passive depiction of marital rape. Scarlett’s passive response to this moment has been the subject of criticism throughout the years.

Nevertheless, it should not be a problem for anybody to revisit Gone With The Wind. This lavish epic is Hollywood storytelling at its grandest and is one of the most fondly remembered classics from the Golden Age. Revisiting any classic movie, especially those movies with contentious issues, should include some learning about the histories of the setting and the production itself. It must be remembered that Gone With The Wind is as such as about 1939 as it is about 1861.

Award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, who is no fan of Gone With The Wind, mentioned recently that it is important for audiences to learn the message behind the image and not just accept the histories at face value.

To fully appreciate Gone With The Wind, it is important to learn more about that real message to ensure that this classic movie can be revisited and appreciated by everyone for many years to come.

Classic Movie Recall

I am also a regular features contributor to the Classic Movie Recall site.

Classic Movie Recall is a series of bite-sized podcasts hosted by on-air radio host Lara Scott, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll, and widely respected producer and writer Melanie Hooks chatting about films from the golden age of cinema.

Please do check out my articles on the blog and visit our informative and enjoyable podcasts for even more thoughts about these great vintage movies and their writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, actors and everyone who brought these classics to the screen.

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