Sunday, January 17, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Gone With the Wind" (1939)

Scene from Gone With the Wind
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Gone With the Wind
Release Date: January 17, 1940
Director: Victor Fleming, George Cuckor (Uncredited), Sam Wood (Uncredited)
Written By: Margaret Mitchell (Novel), Sidney Howard (Screenplay), Olivier H.P. Garrett & Ben Hecht & Jo Sweling & John Van Druten (Uncredited)
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 138 minutes

Oscar Wins: 10
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actress (Vivien Leigh)
-Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing
-Best Art Direction 
-Honorary Oscar (Use of color)
-Honorary Oscar (Technical achievement)

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Clark Gable)
-Best Supporting Actress (Olivia DeHavilland)
-Best Visual Effects
-Best Original Score
-Best Sound Recording

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Dark Victory
-Goodbye Mr. Chips
-Love Affair
-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
-Of Mice and Men
-The Wizard of Oz
-Wuthering Heights

And the winner is...

To say that there is a movie bigger than director Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind is to ignore its cultural and financial value. When adjusted for inflation, it's the highest grossing movie of all time with over $4 billion. The characters of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler have themselves become iconic, depicting a certain romanticism of the Antebellum South that has disappeared more and more with each passing decade. More than anything, its cultural value will be found in its ability to depict what the Golden Age of Hollywood did best. It was a spectacle with grand scope, melodramatic performances, and beautiful cinematography. There have been many films that have been as big as Gone With the Wind culturally, but none will ever top its general impact or its many iconic moments and characters, largely thanks to the mind of neurotic producer David O. Selznick, and his stubborn dream of making this Margaret Mitchell bestseller into the greatest romantic epic of all time.

The story begins with the end. The end of the book, that is. Mitchell was never keen on publishing her story, which didn't even have a good title until the very end. The story goes that she didn't write the book in order, instead jumping around to various chapters that she would stuff into envelopes and hide around her house. She began with the ending, which she was confident in. The beginning took the longest, and was constantly rewritten only when her husband had helped to convince her to submit it to a publisher. The drafts, written over three years, would eventually be published in 1936. It became a bestseller shortly after, and caught the eye of Selznick, who bought the rights for $50,000 upon believing that the story could be told in the model that he wanted. He desired an epic that would have all of the emotional levity and visual grace that was possibly conceived. The one catch is that he couldn't film it until 1939 for legal reasons.

To say the least, the production was a nightmare and featured a lot of conflicts behind the scenes. This was mostly in regards to the script, which featured at least a dozen writers at various points, and even more drafts. Director George Cuckor would complain about the incessant notes that Selznick gave him during production. Writer Ben Hecht was even brought in over the course of 17 days to work nonstop on a new script (despite never so much as reading the book). The issues would prevail and nobody is sure what was even in the first draft, which was marked up. The only thing that was confident was that Selznick was in control. As producer, he sought to be confronted on every issue. Considering that he was a big shot at the time, his ego definitely fueled most of his decisions. It also didn't help that it was said that he rarely slept and would stimulate himself with a mixture of drugs and gambling. He would eventually fire Cuckor for taking too long on production (though later reports would suggest that Selznick and actor Clark Gable just didn't like him being a homosexual). He was replaced with the unremarkable (visually) director Sam Wood, before eventually landing on Victor Fleming - who was very masculine and working on The Wizard of Oz around the same time. While Gable liked him, the other performers who were used to Cuckor's style rejected him (these performers would secretly rehearse with Cuckor after he was fired).

If the problems with having writers and directors wasn't enough of a problem, they didn't even have their leading lady when the first scene was shot. Selznick insisted that Scarlett O'Hara by American - even suggesting at various points that it should be Katharine Hepburn. There was a nationwide search for the actress, of which didn't work out at all and left many to think that it was Selznick's excuse to keep interest in a production that had yet to have a budget. The actress wasn't even discovered until the first day of shooting on "The Burning of Tara" scene, which burned various sets from King Kong and The Garden of Allah. Things got so bad that nearby residents worried that the MGM lot was burning down. The Scarlett in the scene was actually a stand-in. It is said that as the sets burn, Selznick was introduced to Vivien Leigh, of whom was presented to him as "Your Scarlett." Leigh worked better with Cuckor than Fleming, the latter of whom gave her vague directions that she didn't understand. The film was intended to be shot chronologically, but considering that Gable would not be required for every scene, it created conflicts around scheduling. Selznick intended to have Mitchell provide her notes on every detail, but she quickly dropped out when she found criticism around Mammie's headscarf to be a little too superfluous. She would remain skeptical of the production until the premiere.

The production was lofty and often featured the performers jumping back and forth between the various directors. By the end, there was 88 hours of film, and the opening shot had been refilmed multiple times with intent on making it run smoother. The film initially was edited down to 4.5 hours, or 48 minutes longer than the final cut. Most unused content has either been destroyed or lost. Likewise, Selznick asked for composer Max Steiner to produce the score (the longest at the time) in a mere three months. Selznick would even threaten Steiner by having someone do a back-up score just in case. Steiner delivered while having to do extended days of  20 hours work. This is a factor made more impressive when considering that in the year of the film's production (1939), Steiner had recorded 12 scores (his most in one year for his career). Among the stranger details, Leigh's eye color was changed in post to fit the description of Mitchell's book.

The first public screening of Gone With the Wind was on September 9, 1939 at the Fox Theater in Riverside, California. The theater was said to have a special screening ahead and that no one could enter or exit once it started. The audiences clapped when they saw the title come up. It was a success and paved the way for the premiere in Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 1939. The governor declared it a national holiday. Millions of fans showed up solely to see the stars. In attendance included Martin Luther King Jr. and his father as well as several major politicians of the time. There were said to have even been very old Civil War veterans in attendance, as according to old news reels. The cast was in attendance, except for Leslie Howard - who despised working on the film and wished to participate in the recent events of World War II. Gable threatened to not attend when co-star Hattie McDaniel was forbidden from coming due to segregation issues. However, McDaniel insisted and Gable went anyway. At the end of the movie, Mitchell gave her first public opinion. Despite earlier skepticism that was found in letters to her friends, she endorsed Leigh's depiction and called it her Scarlett. 

The subsequent box office success was no surprise. The film was a phenomenon with reports believing that in its initial run, that it would gross $25 million on tickets priced at $1 ($0.50 matinee). It set the bar for what was to come at The Oscars that year, where it received 13 nominations and two Honorary Awards. McDaniel became the first African American actor to receive an Oscar. The writer who finally got credit, Sidney Howard, became the first posthumous Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is the longest film to win Best Picture, and Leigh's performance is the longest to win an acting Oscar. It was also the first color picture to win Best Picture and the most nominated and winning until GiGi and later Ben-Hur. Despite now being considered one of his most iconic scores, Steiner lost the Best Original Score Oscar despite the film featuring the first use of an electronic synthesizer in the score for the "Entr'acte" piece.

The general reputation is that Gone With the Wind is one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history. Many would even consider it a rare film where the producer (Selznick) has more of a visual stamp on the film than any director. While every actor attached would dislike their work in the film for whatever reasons (Gable claiming it was a woman's movie), most would come to accept it as part of their legacy. Among the more controversial views is that the film inaccurately depicts the Antebellum South by having the fancy whites and negligent black stereotypes. Some would even consider McDaniel's portrayal of Mammie to be a betrayal of her race. In later years, the film would have a conflicted legacy due to this, with some even comparing it to the more problematic The Birth of a Nation. While there are those few who claims it subverts racial expectations, it's still a film mired in inaccurate depictions (though Selznick was aware of its potential harm, as he removed every reference from the book's KKK subplot) that have altered the way that the era is viewed. In a partially ironic twist, the biggest film in Hollywood history failed to be recognized at The Oscars in 2014 while perceivable flop The Wizard of Oz (released the same year) was to celebrate its 75th anniversary. It could partially be shame, or just that the controversial racial depiction would clash with that year's Best Picture winner: 12 Years a Slave. Even then, the film's beauty and scope are reflective of what Hollywood did best in its golden era, and thus adds a sustainability to the film's lasting impact.

Gone With the Wind remains a classic for many reasons. Beyond its film, its production was so mired in conflict (I barely scratched the surface here) that it almost seemed like it would never be released, or at least in a way that would be nearly as successful as it was. Despite every setback, the film remains an overwhelming presence in pop culture and manages to feature something beautiful and aspiring for fans of old cinema. It is a story whose scope and melodrama manage to feel balanced in ways that most often gets squandered a little. Even if the film may not have the greatest reputation (which I argue is an unfair dismissal in a lot of ways), it definitely serves as a cornerstone to its own bygone era of when producers controlled visions and Hollywood sought to make cinema that was breathtaking mass entertainment. The somewhat scandalous nature of Gone With the Wind could never be made today, and that's part of the reason that it's unique successes continue to endure as one of the greatest films in history.

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