Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) exemplifies filmmaking as the great American art form; Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) represents all the Western culture and history European refugees brought to Golden Age Hollywood in the wake of World War II; Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) did for color film what Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) did for talkies.
Conceivably, it was because it was the year Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and the world, already in the throes of the Great Depression, needed an escape more than ever, so these creatives were inspired to lead the way to a more beautiful reality through the visceral medium that is cinema.
Whatever the case may be, it was Fleming’s own Gone with the Wind (1939) which took home the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Fleming’s other Technicolor classic is available on Amazon Prime.
The epic historical romance is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name (with scriptwriter Sidney Howard taking home the Oscar).
In addition to its ten Academy Awards, including Best Director, the film is also the highest-grossing movie of all time (when adjusted for inflation).
It’s 1861 Georgia, and sixteen-year-old Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Best Actress Vivien Leigh) has a crush on Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who, despite leading her on, has eyes only for his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Best Supporting Actress nominee Olivia de Havilland).
As Scarlett manipulates her way closer to Ashely over the next twelve years, she encounters the Charlestonian rogue Rhett Butler (Best Actor nominee Clark Gable), who loves her as obsessively as she loves Ashley.
All around them, the American Civil War and Reconstruction take the torch to the only way of life Scarlett has ever known, until, like the passage of time, it, too, is gone with the wind.
No other anecdote from the tempestuous production better encapsulates the contradictory cinematic importance as well as intersectional regression of the feature than Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress win for the role of Mammy, the O’Hara family’s housemaid.
Though she was the first black person to win an Oscar in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and a woman at that), she was segregated from the rest of the white attendees.
Furthermore, the “Mammy” media stereotype, named for her character, is not a positive representation.
The gender politics are just as turbulent. The iconic image of Rhett sweeping Scarlett off her feet immediately precedes a rape.
Bracketing this mis-romanticized moment in filmic history are scene after scene of the entitled leading man threatening or otherwise verbally abusing the strong, financially independent leading lady, and worse still, it’s almost as if Scarlett deserves it because she’s such an antihero.
The nearly four-hour affair is technically dated as well. It belongs more to its producer, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures, than it does its filmmaker.
Indeed, Oscar notwithstanding, Fleming’s directorial style is dwarfed next to Selznick’s megalomaniacal sweep.
Gone with the Wind is very much of its time, between its thesis that liberated American slaves were happier in subservient roles, Rhett’s spectacularized, brutal “punishment” of Scarlett, and its self-indulgent, melodramatic production value, but it is still a cinephilic must-watch.
Without it, Selznick might not have been able to recruit Sir Alfred Hitchcock stateside for Rebecca (1940), the auteur’s only Best Picture winner, and we might not have borne witness to the greatest Hollywood works ever created.
And without Hitchcock, we wouldn’t have auteur theory as we know it today.
Then again, the part the producer plays in a picture’s success is frequently overlooked and underappreciated (especially up against the director).
Darryl F. Zanuck, for instance, is the wunderkind behind many of the studio system’s early successes, such as William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). As pedestrian as Fleming is here, Selznick’s genius makes up for it and then some.
Even under Fleming’s studio-interfered direction, Leigh delivers the first of two companion pieces which define her star persona. The second is Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she earned her second Oscar.
Her progression from the vital, self-preservationalistic Scarlett to the poorly aged, defeated Blanche mirrors the multifacetedness of her artistry, personalized by the bipolar disorder she lived with all her life; truly, she was a worthy equal to her spouse, Sir Laurence Olivier (whose classicalism is as esteemed as Marlon Brando’s Method in A Streetcar Named Desire, and who starred in Rebecca alongside de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine).
Gone with the Wind is nothing if not a technical magnum opus, even if it only redeems itself dramatically through Leigh.
Its cinematography, editing, and art direction were also showered with statuettes, and two honorary awards were set aside for the film’s use of coordinated equipment and color.
Sherman’s burning of Atlanta is an ode to practical effects – at eighty years old, the setpiece is more gracefully aged than many of the computer-generated fantasias churned out in our time.
And Gone with the Wind, as socio-politically indefensible as it is, is still a towering cinematic triumph. It is as watchable now as it was in 1939, all five acts of it, and it does illuminate how the penal code substituted slave labor for Scarlett.
Between this and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), another influential (and problematic) Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind and the survivalistic woman at its core marks the superior film.
It is a treasure from a lost moment in filmmaking, back when the studios were dream factories crafting fantasies with all the dependency of a Fordist assembly line, long before they became conglomerate-owned toy manufacturers rebooting and remaking focus group nostalgia.
It is a totem of a bygone era that united strangers all across the globe by the millions in a time of diplomatic and economic strife. It is a product of its time in all the worst and best ways, a filmmaking gilded age gone with the wind.