Gone with the Wind - 1939

Gone with the Wind - Premiere December 15, 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia
Directed by Victor Fleming (also George Cukor and Sam Wood)

When the film books say 1939 is the biggest and best year from Hollywood, usually what leads the evidence list is Gone with the Wind. (There is a long list of other titles on that list, too, with many considered to be prime Hollywood "classics.")

With adjustments made for inflation, ticket price, and attendance records, Gone with the Wind is still considered the biggest Hollywood success of all time. There are a number of factors that makes the movie unique - it was the very first "long" epic-film in color at a time when black-and-white was the universal standard, and Gone with the Wind contained a story that had strong cultural reverberations in 1939 as there were enough North and South civil war veterans still alive to hold an annual convention, let alone the large number of American families with direct ties to the war via fathers and grandfathers. Added to the advantages enjoyed by GWTW at the time of it's premiere is that it appeared before World War II started, something which dramatically changed film distribution around the world and radically decreased the scope of number of theatres possible to get a "blockbuster" into.

Margaret Mitchell's novel that the film is based upon was an enormous best-selling book, and there were years of pre-production and test-filming in which the Hollywood marketing machine kept the public apprised of the ongoing development of the movie starring Clark Gable and Leslie Howard, along with the other well known names in the cast. The momentum of the movie when it finally opened was enormous, with an estimated million people coming into Atlanta, Georgia for the premiere events, the Govenor declaring a state holiday for the opening date, and seats in the first showing being scalped for as much as $200 (in 1939 currency).

Despite the shear entertainment value of the film, with its enormous sets and sweeping visual vistas, it also manages to encapsulate the American Civil War and the fortunes of a large cast of characters in a manner that has been imitated by many films (and especially TV mini-series) ever since. Gone with the Wind is nonetheless now faulted on several counts by 21st century film watchers and especially film critics. The most obvious item is the portrayal of African-American characters, which is idealistically presented as an untroubled part of the idyllic world of antebellum plantation life. As a historical record, Gone with the Wind doesn't afford the viewer with any good viewpoint to evaluate the brutality of the American slave system, except in the small glances provided on screen. Everything regarding the background topic of war and slavery is completely overshadowed by the main obsession of the movie: which characters will be with which other characters by the end of the story.

Some have pointed out how unevenly the film adapts Mitchell's book*. For example, lost is the parallelism between the character played by Hattie McDaniel (the house slave Mammy) and the character Ellen O'Hara (played by Barbara O'Neil) and their daughters, which is Prissy (played by Butterfly McQueen) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh).

The novel has the mothers in parallel and the daughters, too, and how each daughter is raised by their respective mothers plays a large part in understanding why Prissy and Scarlett are handicapped in facing the world at large when the South collapses with defeat at the end of the war. The famous scene of Prissy saying "I don't know-nothin' about birthin' no babies" is directly related to the privileged and guarded upbringing both Prissy and the equally useless Scarlett had in the pre-war years. This condition of helplessness is overturned when Scarlett is chronicled learning how to work and beat the Yankees (and many other Southerners) at their own game in the Reconstruction economy of Georgia. This element of Scarlett-and-Prissy being linked in the novel, though certainly not the major theme of the book, is brushed aside completely in the film adaptation, and in its place is an emphasis on standard Hollywood melodrama about which woman will be with which man. (It is estimated that 16 writers worked on translating the book to the screen).

Adaptation problems aside, fitting the gigantic novel (over 1,000 pages when published) into a 4-hour movie is handled well, the story is kept moving along and the big cast is shown in such a way that a first-time viewer can keep the characters straight.

One of the main problems with the movie is actually something it isn't reponsible for: all of the over-long films that have premiered in it's wake. Epic movie making is a tricky business and Gone with the Wind has been a difficult standard to follow.

AMAZON STREAMING: Gone with the Wind (1939)

* Writer Florence King, for example.

The Directors of Gone with the Wind

Victor Fleming directed filming for 93 days

George Cukor directed filming for 18 days

Sam Wood directed filming for 24 days

Web Links Gone with the Wind:

When 'Gone With the Wind' film was released, it was lauded and lambasted -

"Surveys at the time found that the two most popular scenes in the movie were the burning of Atlanta and the sight of Scarlett as she walks among the wounded and dying Confederate soldiers in an Atlanta train station. Both are graphic depictions of the horrors of war."

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Original Page September 2016 | Updated April 2018