ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Gone With the Wind: Still Breezing at Seventy-Six

Updated on March 30, 2015
The fund-raising dance in Atlanta. Walter Plunkett, the costume designer, painstakingly duplicated all important details of the period
The fund-raising dance in Atlanta. Walter Plunkett, the costume designer, painstakingly duplicated all important details of the period

On November 7, 1976 the highest rated program which had ever aired on a single network in the history of television up to that time made its network premiere on NBC.

It was a 37-year-old movie about a war that had ended 111 years earlier. Most of the people associated with its production were, even by then, already long dead.

Imagine that today a movie from 1978, 37 years ago, were to be shown on television and that it would be the highest rated program of the last 50 years. You can’t imagine it, because that would be impossible.

I remember distinctly the fanfare associated with the first-ever TV broadcast of Gone With the Wind. I was a small child then but I knew it was an important milestone. Not only was the movie set in my hometown of Atlanta, but it had been adapted from a book penned by a local author, Margaret Mitchell, a former writer for The Atlanta Journal. It had been shown for the first time in an old Atlanta theater named the Loew's Grand. Its stars and its production team had attended the premiere and this had been one of the biggest events in the history of the town where I was from.

Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.
Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.
The stars at the premier: from left to right Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, Olivia de Havilland
The stars at the premier: from left to right Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, Olivia de Havilland

As I watched the spectacle on the small screen my childhood mind understood that it was different than any modern piece of entertainment and was from a past era that really was gone with the wind. I realized the dramatic nature of the events and images which it featured. And years later when I saw it in the magnificence of Atlanta’s Fox Theater, the closest existing cinematic equivalent to the Loew's, which had been demolished after a fire in 1978, I was swept away by the spectacle of the film: the lavish costumes, Max Steiner's grandiose musical score, the eye-pleasing kaleidoscope of the Technicolor parade onscreen.

But I never really grasped the extent of its accomplishment.

I must have seen the movie about seven or eight times between 1976 and 1996, mostly in revivals in movie theaters. I thought I had seen it as many times as I could possibly enjoy seeing it. A family member gave me a DVD of the film about ten years ago. I didn’t play the DVD until last week. And it was only then, nearly forty years after my first exposure to it, that I finally came to a clear understanding of what made Gone With the Wind unique and more popular and enduring than any other in the history of the medium.

To start off with, every technical detail about this movie is superlative. No expense was spared to get the costumes authentic, the lighting exact, the right actors for the right parts, the best writers, the slickest music, the most artful direction, the most absolute historical accuracy. In viewing it now, I’m struck by how finely interwoven all the threads in the movie are. The actors don’t seem to be acting. They ARE the characters they’re playing. The music doesn’t seem to come from an orchestra. It seems as inherent as light and air. The dialogue doesn’t seem to be written. It seems to be flowing directly from the emotions and sensibilities of the characters speaking it. The story doesn’t seem to be a re-enactment of history. It actually seems to be history itself.

That it all came together seamlessly is perhaps as much due to blind luck and serendipity as to the tireless efforts of David O. Selznick, the producer and mastermind behind Gone With the Wind.

Selznick’s brother, Myron, among the first Hollywood agents, happened to find Vivien Leigh to play Scarlett O’Hara. The public happened to demand that the part of Rhett Butler be played by Clark Gable, under contract with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio, which necessitated distributing the film through MGM rather than Selznick’s independent company. Despite bickering over the script and the direction, Selznick happened to be helped by many people who never received credit. The screenplay was originally written by Sidney Howard, though it was later extensively edited by Ben Hecht and others. The final director was Victor Fleming, but George Cukor, who originally had the title before being replaced because Selznick was unhappy with his slow pacing, continued to coach Leigh and Olivia de Havilland on the side while Fleming did the official duties.

George Cukor, second to the right from Leigh, was the original director of Gone With the Wind.
George Cukor, second to the right from Leigh, was the original director of Gone With the Wind.

And then there are the secret nuances of this movie which add to its fascination for me now in ways that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. Take the example of director Victor Fleming. He must be the most underrated director ever. His name is almost totally unknown to the public today and yet in the same year (1939), he directed what may be the two most popular and best known movies in the annals of cinema: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. And while cynics might say he was simply a producer’s foot soldier in both of these projects, and not the creative force of contemporaries like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, or later descendants like Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone, the fact remains that he must have had a large role in shaping the projects under his watch. One would have to be blind to deny that either of these classics would have been what they became without Fleming’s contributions, however collaborative.

Victor Fleming behind the camera. In the same year he captured Judy Garland saying "There's no place like home," and Vivien Leigh saying, "Tomorrow is another day."
Victor Fleming behind the camera. In the same year he captured Judy Garland saying "There's no place like home," and Vivien Leigh saying, "Tomorrow is another day."

Of course a modern audience is also likely to be aware of certain flaws that were not as evident during the era in which Gone With the Wind was made. The portrayal of blacks in particular is likely to seem patronizing if not demeaning to some. The institution of slavery, which was the ultimate basis of the Civil War, is never seriously questioned. However, on both of these counts, we must remember that the movie is an adaptation of a novel, not a totally independent work unto itself. The novel was written from a white Southern point of view, had the biases of that point of view, and was often shamelessly in awe of the mythology of antebellum Southern plantation society.

Selznick had no desire to tamper with Margaret Mitchell’s wildly popular mythology. His filmed version of her book is about as close as any movie has ever been to a literal rendering of a book onto film. The only significant difference is that in the book Scarlett has one child by each of her first two husbands, Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy, but in the movie is childless when she marries Rhett Butler.

An example of serendipity: As cinematographer Ernest Haller drew back from the scene of the war casualties in Atlanta, he accidentally filmed a Confederate flag that was being used as a prop.
An example of serendipity: As cinematographer Ernest Haller drew back from the scene of the war casualties in Atlanta, he accidentally filmed a Confederate flag that was being used as a prop.

Another and perhaps more difficult shortcoming to explain is the relative weakness of Leslie Howard’s portrayal of Ashley Wilkes. At 46, Howard was much older than the ideal age for the character. This, in some respects, undermines the credibility of the entire plot. We find it impossible to understand what Scarlett sees in Ashley, why she clings to him, what qualities in him would create such an obsession. As Howard plays him, he is neither handsome, witty nor charismatic, particularly in comparison to Gable’s version of Rhett Butler. Even his honor is questionable; he continues to feed Scarlett’s obsession with tidbits of encouragement, hugs and kisses her in several scenes, and even confesses love for her. This seems all the more absurd in the final scene between them when he admits to Scarlett that his dying wife Melanie was everything he had in life. It’s at this point that he seems a downright scalawag.

Part of the problem was Howard’s personal revulsion for the part. He allegedly bartered with Selznick to get a role with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo, and in exchange for that role he agreed to play Ashley Wilkes. Just why Selznick wanted Howard for Ashley is one of the movie’s great unexplained mysteries. Perhaps the producer was taken in by Howard’s portrayal of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), in which the actor was charismatic, heroic and dashing in ways that would astound most viewers of Gone With the Wind. Or perhaps he was swayed by Howard’s presence in real life, which was said to be much more impressive than Clark Gable’s. Another fascinating curiosity about the movie is that, behind the scenes, Vivien Leigh had a crush on Leslie Howard, but found Clark Gable dull and uninteresting.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. The chemistry that flowed between the two onscreen disappeared when the cameras stopped rolling.
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. The chemistry that flowed between the two onscreen disappeared when the cameras stopped rolling.

In any event, the great classic of Hollywood’s golden age continues to captivate modern audiences three quarters of a century after its release, and with good reason. It is one remarkable scene after another, both visually and dramatically; great characters speaking memorable words; brilliant imagery and precise historical detail; and all against a backdrop of war, desolation and renewal. It’s a combination no other filmmaker has ever been able to duplicate since.

The closing scene. Scarlett O'Hara in silhouette overlooking Tara.
The closing scene. Scarlett O'Hara in silhouette overlooking Tara.

© 2015 James Crawford

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 

      3 years ago

      Great hub! I watched every second of it in '76. I read the book too. I always figured Scarlett wanted Ashley Wilkes just because she couldn't have him. She was a spoiled little girl who was used to getting everything her own way before the war. Had Ashley showed more interest, she probably would have broken his heart like all the rest of her beaus.

      I think Ashley became a symbol of that old life she couldn't have back- the old south, which is why he became an enduring obsession for her after the war. In some ways, Scarlett was a symbol of the old south for Rhett too. He fell for her fire, spirit, courage, and beauty- not Scarlett herself who never really changed, despite all that happened to her. It wasn't the war that made Scarlett an unfeeling, terribly selfish person.

      I see Belle Watling as her foil. A woman who had none of Scarlett's early advantages who did what she had to surviving the war and thrived but still has a heart of gold.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)