After nearly a year of actual filming, editing and scoring, David O. Selznick’s production of “Gone With the Wind,” from Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War and reconstruction period, comes to the screen as one of the truly great films, destined for record-breaking box office business everywhere. The lavishness of its production, the consummate care and skill which went into its making, the assemblage of its fine cast and expert technical staff combine in presenting a theatrical attraction completely justifying the princely investment of $3,900,000.
Although its success at theatres is unquestioned, “Gone With the Wind” starts its public career as a problem child of the boxoffice because of its verbose footage. Actual running time is three hours, 37 minutes.
Punctuated by a brief single intermission, the viewing of the film becomes an amusement adventure retaining customers at theatres long after the established conventional hour. Boxoffice turnover, therefore, is impossible — in fact, exhibition experience in the half-dozen cities where the film is opening this week and next may furnish the solution and groove “Wind” in its best exhibition policy, as a two-a-day attraction. Because of the extended engagements which are certain, even in the smaller communities, the film will create its own high level of special handling, and likely as not establish a new and more progressive era of exhibition.
What is displayed on the marquees of the theatre which will show the film is the combination of potent boxoffice values, unequaled by any other film at the moment. Miss Mitchell’s novel as a best seller is said to have exceeded 1,500,000 in sales, and has certainly been the most-discussed piece of American fiction of the past decade. In the leading roles, the casting of which was the subject of national debate and conjecture for many months, are Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler; Vivien Leigh, a young English actress, who gives a brilliant performance as Scarlett O’Hara; Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, as Ashley and Melanie — and the Selznick trademark of workmanship, a recognized guarantee of screen excellence.
Almost equally well known within the trade are the director, Victor Fleming; the musical composer, Max Steiner, and the scenarist, the late Sidney Howard, who is given sole script credit, although half a dozen topflight writers collaborated during the preparatory and shooting periods. Perhaps the outstanding feature of the collaborative screenscript is the emergence from many minds and hands of a drama that bears all the marks of devout singleness of purpose, in which skillful construction of story, incident and characterization build to smash climaxes, and then rush onward to other emotional clashes.
What is actually shown on the screen is the Margaret Mitchell story, starting at page one, chapter one, and continuing to the very end and final bit of dialog, when Rhett leaves his home and the pleading Scarlett, declaring he doesn’t give a ‘damn’ what happens to her. The inclusion of the blasphemous utterance, which is lifted literally from the novel’s text, is indicative of the faithfulness of the translation throughout. There are minor and unimportant eliminations and transpositions of incident. But ‘Gone with the Wind’ is the story as written by the novelist, faithfully and accurately recorded by camera and microphone.
Therein lies also the cause for some criticism of the film. In the desire apparently to leave nothing out, Selznick has left too much in. Latter portions of story could stand constructively for some vigorous trimming of repetitious scenes and dialog. As entertainment, the film would benefit from the deletions. Miss Mitchell’s story is a good one, and the gruelling contest and conflicts between Scarlett and Rhett are absorbing and interesting. But they are overlong and overplayed. Brevity and terseness would add to the dramatic values of the closing scenes.
As in the book, so on the screen, the most effective portions of the saga of the destroyed South deal with human incident against the background of the war between the states and the impact of honorable defeat to the Southern forces. Fleming has caught a series of memorable views of plantation life and scenes, and builds a strong case for a civilization of chivalry. Comes the debacle and the characters are catapulted into new conditions, strange and hateful surroundings. Entire passage of the film, from the start of the war to the capture of Atlanta, is a moving and thrilling experience, climaxed by the escape of Scarlett and the new mother, Melanie. Upon their arrival at Tara, after hardship and peril, first half of the film ends.
Most distinguished feature of the Selznick opus is the superlative scenic and costume investiture which the producer has given to the film, and the incomparable excellence of the Technicolor photography. From first to last ‘Wind’ is a visual treat, the unfolding of innumerable views of the architecture and attire of a bygone era.
Among the players, Miss Leigh’s Scarlett commands first commendation as a memorable performance, of wide versatility and effective earnestness. She possesses all the physical requirements for the part. It is not as a coquette that she scores most heavily, however, nor as the scheming, bitter and ruthless wife and mother who knows no opposition to her will. She is best when the story demands attributes and characteristics of courage and determination, as during the exciting sequence of the flight with the helpless mother and child in her care. Again, in the brief passage with the Yankee deserter whom she shoots and kills. With her youth, looks and abundant talent, Miss Leigh springboards from ‘Wind’ to a boxoffice factor in the film market.
Gable’s Rhett Butler is as close to Miss Mitchell’s conception–and the audience’s–as might be imagined. He gives a forceful impersonation.
On the heels of these two, Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, comes closest with a bid for top position as a trouper. It is she who contributes the most moving scene in the film, her plea with Melanie that the latter should persuade Rhett to permit burial of his baby daughter. Time will set a mark on this moment in the picture as one or those inspirational bits of histrionics long remembered.
Of the other principals, Olivia de Havilland does a standout as Melanie, and Leslie Howard is convincing as the weak-charactered Ashley.
Vivid impressions are retained of the work of Thomas Mitchell, as Gerald O’Hara; Victor Jory, as Jonas Wilkerson; Laura Hope Crews, as Aunt Pitty; and Ona Munson, as Belle Watling, who makes the most of her few appearances. There are literally scores of character parts and bits, Harry Davenport is excellent as Dr. Meade, a long role.
From spectacle to intimate bedroom drama, Fleming kept a firm grip on the direction of the story. Task of holding audience attention for nearly three and three-quarter hours is a challenge to ingenuity and resourcefulness. That Fleming succeeds so well may be attributed to the manner in which he has highlighted his principals in every scene, regardless of the spectacular elements. Thus he has transferred into a moving and heart-rending stanza the panorama or wounded soldiers lying under the blazing sun in the Atlanta trainyards. There never is a static moment in the telling of the story. Fleming keeps characters and backgrounds on the move. Film started with George Cukor in the directorial spot. Fleming succeeded him and Sam Wood took over for a short period when Fleming was ill.
Every technical aspect of ‘Gone With the Wind’ bears the stamp of advanced craftsmanship. Despite the wide range of scenes depicted and characters shown there is unity of design and pattern. William Cameron Menzies supervised the general investiture and Lyle Wheeler was the art director. The authenticity of the furnishings, properties and apparel excites special interest. The job behind the screen was hefty in research and fabrication.
Same goes for all other off-screen contributions from other departments. Steiner restrained himself in his scoring from dipping into conventional melodic bathos. The ear catches strains from Stephen Foster, and occasional refrains from the large library of Civil War martial airs. Perhaps the highest praise which can be given to the Steiner work is that the score never pushes for favor above the dramatic action. Sound mixings were as smoothly achieved as the several visual montages.
Task of assembling and synchronizing such varied and numerous activities called for expert handling. Fleming had excellent assistance from Eric G. Stacey and Ridgeway Callow.
Industry and public have waited many months for ‘Gone With the Wind’ as a film. Completed job is something more than another picture–even an outstanding one. Its distribution under the policy of advanced admission prices, honestly earned and willingly paid, opens a new chapter in the picture business. It demonstrates again that in entertainment the best is the most easily sold.
1939: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supp. Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Special Awards (use of color design, and use of coordinated equipment)
Nominations: Best Actor (Clark Gable), Supp. Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Original Score, Sound, Special Effects