Friday, September 17, 2010
Movie Time Rewind: Gone With the Wind
*edit* This review got REALLY long, sorry if I got carried away*
I thought today would be a great opportunity to do another Rewind column, one to keep the streak alive or posting 30 times this month, but mainly because I really want to talk about the film of the moth (or of last month), 1939's cinematic masterpiece, Gone With the Wind. I watched a wonderfully fascinating documentary on the film entitled The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind, which really rekindled my passion for the film and for the performances. Way way back when I first started this column I wrote a Rewind piece on Hollywood's Greatest Year, 1939, a year that saw the release of more historically memorable (and truly great) films than any other. The year 1939 is considered Hollywood's banner year, with the release of a score of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, and Stagecoach among others. You can read the overview here
The story of Gone With the Wind is about Scarlett O'Hara, a southern belle growing up on a wealthy plantation named Tara. It starts off on the eve of the American Civil War with Scarlett secretly pining for southern aristocrat Ashley Wilkes, despite her knowledge that he is to be secretly wed to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. After she confesses her feelings to him, Ashley tells her that he feels the same, but he is still going to marry Melanie. The exchange is overheard by Rhett Butler, disowned from his family and un-popular for his stance that in a war of the states, the South doesn't have the resources of the North and would lose. When war is announced, Scarlett agrees to marry Rand, a member of the Hamilton household, ostensibly to make Ashley jealous and to stay close to him.
During the war Scarlett is quickly widowed and moves into the Hamilton house to stay with Melanie to cheer her up, despite her true intentions, which were to wait for Ashley's return. She runs in Rhett again, now a Confederate hero, who announces his plans to win her over, which she adamantly refuses. She does steal a kiss from Ashley though, furthering her resolve to win him over despite his claims that he will never follow up on his feelings. As the war progresses, Scarlett and Melanie try to help the wounded soldiers, until the city is besieged by the Union Army. Scarlett helps Malanie deliver her baby during a difficult pregnancy though and manages to compel Rhett to steal them out of the city and to return them back to her home, Tara. Rhett guides them out of the burning city and the two share a passionate kiss before he returns to the war. Scarlett is left to discover her hometown nearly destroyed, though Tara still stands. Her father is stricken mad with grief over his wife's death, and Scarlett steals, herself, vowing never to be hungry again.
As the war draws to a close, Scarett is forced to become the family's source of income. She fashions a grand dress from her mothers curtains (a famous scene) and turns to Rhett, whom she believes is still rich. Discovering that he is broke and in jail, she instead turns to stealing her sister's fiance, Frank Miller, and through her own efforts, turns grows his business profitably during the re-building of Atlanta, by agreeing to work with Yankee contractors. She even manages to convince Ashley to run her sawmill by plying on his (and Melanie's) sympathies to keep him close. Sadly, Frank is killed after Scarlett is attacked and after another refusal from Ashley, Scarlett marries a newly fortuned Rhett.
Rhett vows to build Scarlett a new mansion in Atlanta and to rebuild Tara and the two have a daughter together. Rhett does everything in his power to win over the cold Scarlett and to ingratiate himself back into society, though Scarlett pulls farther away and tells him that they will not have another child and that they should sleep in separate rooms. Rhett tries to ignore his feelings of jealousy and after a night of drinking, announces that this is a night she won't ever forget and takes her to bed. The next morning, sober and disgraced, he apologizes and offers her a divorce, which she refuses. He leaves with his daughter in anger, but returns to find Scarlett pregnant with his child, though she doesn't want to have it. After an argument, she falls down some stairs and suffers a miscarriage. Rhett is racked with guilt and anger, which is compiled by the additional tragedy of the death of thier daughter and of Melanie, during a second pregnancy. With Melanie dead, Ashley is distraught and collapses, torn apart by grief. It's only then does she realize that she never really did love Ashley, that she loved Rhett. But by then, Rhett didn't care, walking out of her life for good, leaving Scarlett sobbing on the stairs, unsure of what to do next.
There are so many facets of this film that are fascinating, not the least of which are the trials an tribulations that were involved in getting the picture made. Gone With the Wind is a film based on a novel by first time author Margaret Mitchell, a girl raised in the south of Atlanta and who had been brought up being told stories of the devastation of the South during the Civil War by her mother. She was told about the splendor of the the Southern elite classes and the brutal falls from grace that many suffered during the war and their failure to recover afterward. As Mitchell grew older though, she very much immersed herself in popular culture. She defied modern convention at the time by becoming a reporter for the Atlanta Journal under the pen name Peggy Mitchell and writing a weekly column. It was during a period in 1926 when she broke an ankle that she first started the 10 year on and off project that would become the only book she would ever write, Gone With the Wind, based off the old stories her mother had shared. During a time where America was still in teh grips of the Great Depression and trying to ignore the growing perils around them in the world, Gone With the Wind gripped the country. The novel would go on to sell over 30 million copies and merit Mitchell with a Pulitzer Prize.
Film producer David O. Selznick had been a hot shot executive at arguably the biggest studio of the late 1930's and would present itself as THE major studio into the next decade. Selznick, though, wanted to be his own boss and make his own pictures. He had married Louis B. Mayer's daughter and using the connections he had made while at MGM, launched his own film studio on the old RKO lot, Selznick International Pictures. He produced some of the late 1930's better films, The Prisoner of Zenda, the original A Star is Born (which would be remade multiple times) and The Garden of Allah, all independently. Selznick was a perfectionist and wanted the best of everything put into one of his productions. He was even the first U.S. producer to bring Alfred Hitchcock to America, with Hitch's first American (and Oscar winning) film Rebecca the year after Gone With the Wind.
Selznick purchased the rights to Gone With the Wind from Mitchell the same week as the book was released after much consideration for the then unheard of sum of $50,000 in 1936. What began next was one of the longest pre-production tenures of a film in cinema history. Selznick turned to one of the premier freelance scriptwriters of the time, Sydney Howard, who was tasked with the herculean effort of trimming the novel down to a manageable film length. The nation was obsessed with Gone With the Wind, and the screenplay had to satisfy the expectant public. He worked on the piece for months, turning in a treatment in September that would have been nearly 6 hours long, and finishing the first draft in December of 1936. The script would go through numerous revisions over the 3 year production on the film, and despite the fact that only Sydney Howard is credited with the script, at least 5 other writers took turns at the script including Ben Hecht (another favored writer of Selznick) as well as Selznick himself, who reportedly once took a vacation in 1937 and took the script with him, in 4 suitcases. At one time Selznick, Hecht, and another writer, locked themselves in a room for 7 days and churned out another version of the script. Most believe that Howard was credited with the screenplay in the end for two reasons. One, the final script (which was never actually compiled as the scenes were often re-written the night before the shoot) most closely resembled his draft. The second reason was Howard's untimely death in 1939 after an accident on his far and it was considered a posthumous gesture of gratitude.
Selznick was an independent studio and one of his greatest concerns was the mounting costs of the picture. After a year of work on the piece and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, he didn't have a script or a cast yet. Teaming with his close personal friend and Selznick Picture favorite, George Cukor, the two launched casting sessions while the picture was still being written. The casting of Scarlett was a national phenomenon, gripping the country in a frenzy. Nearly every leading lady of the day was interviewed and screen testes, from Katherine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead to Betty Davis. During 1938 a few clear front runners presented themselves, Joan Bennett, Jean Arthur, and Paulette Goddard. Goddard was the favorite early on though all three were still in contention in December of '38. A dark horse candidate had presented herself though a few months before, that of Vivian Leigh. Goddard had been in pictures for nearly a decade and had made a huge impact with Charlie Chaplin in his masterpiece, Modern Times. Leigh had starred in little of merit, but had come to America after leaving her husband and child to run off with acting great Laurence Olivier.
Even before the picture had been cast, Selznick needed to make room for the sets to be built. In order to clear enough lot space, Selznick decided to burn down all the structures on the backlot and use the footage for the burning of Atlanta sequence in the film. In truth, during the film, the burning structures of Atlanta are sets from The Prisoner of Zenda, The Garden Of Allah, even the great gates of 1933's King Kong are pulled down around them. Trick photography and stunt doubles were used during the filming that night to capture the scene, along with every Technicolor Film Camera in existence. Selznick invited many people to the filming to watch, including his brother Myron Selznick, one of Hollywood's first agents. The legend goes, Myron brought Vivian Leigh with him to the burning, and introduced her to David with the line, "Hey Genius, Meet your Scarlett."
Vivian Leigh had been acting for several years and went through a her screen tests, showing a range and talent that had not been as apparent in her earlier works and quickly won the part, officially getting it on Christmas Day 1938. Casting Rhett on teh other hand was a different matter. The entire populace of America knew exactly who should be Rhett Butler, the King of Hollywood himself, Clark Gable. Gable was under contract to MGM and in order for Selznick to get him to play the part, David had to cut a very lucrative deal with MGM. They would get distribution rights to teh film and 50% of the gross, in exchange Selznick would get $1.25 million in cash to make the picture and Gable. Gable wanted nothing to do with the picture, having made a period drama in 1937 which had flopped and Gable did NOT want to be embarrassed. Louis B. Mayer sweetened the deal by offering Gable $50,000 extra to essentially pay off his current wife so he could divorce her quietly and marry Carole Lombarde.
The other two principal actors also came with a price. Ashley Wilkes was played by Leslie Howard. Howard didn't want the role as he thought himself to old at 46. Despite his reluctance, he was really the only actor who had any command of the role in Selznick's eyes. Howard's dream though was to be a producer. To get him to commit to the role, Selznick offered him a producer's role in what would turn out to be Ingrid Bergman's breakout role, Intermezzo: A Love Story. Howard took the role and never complained throughout the process, though he never learned anyone else lines or read the novel his performance was based on, He gave exactly what he promised he would give. Olivia de Havilland desperately wanted the role of Melanie. She was under contract though but had once been a part of a packaged deal from Warner Brothers with Errol Flynn to be the film's lead when they were vying for the deal that MGM eventually got. Selznick auctioned many actresses, but it to de Havilland's personal plea to WB studio head Jack Warner's wife for her to get clearance to take the part.
Principal photography finally began in January of 1939. Selznick, while very involved with pre-production and casting for most of his pictures, usually didn't spend that much time on the set. For Gone With the Wind, he was on set daily. He and director Cukor argued over scenes and styles of the film, reshooting scenes constantly. Cukor was very much known for his ability to coach and direct women and Vivian Leigh loved working with him. They both had the same vision of Leigh, fiery, resolute, compassionate, tough. Clark Gable hated Cukor. He thought he was soft and didn't feel like he could trust the director to ensure that his performance in this "woman's film" didn't make him seem weak. Eventually the conflict on set grew so tense that Cukor walked off the set and Selznick told him not to come back. Surprisingly the two remained close friends. Shooting was halted for 17 days while Selznik worked on the script and arranged with MGM to get veteran director Victor Fleming. Fleming has replaced Cukor on The Wizard of Oz month's earlier and was pulled off the last few days of shooting their to take over the floundering set. Fleming took one look at the script and called it a mess and restored much of the Sydney Howard's version, who had taken another revision before his death.
Gable and Fleming got along famously and Fleming ran a tough set. Leigh, whom at one point adored the idea of filming this movie, did not get along with either. Her and de Havilland would often go see Cukor on the weekend who continued to coach the women on the film secretly. Despite this, or maybe even because of, Leigh would often ask to shoot longer and later, anything to accelerate the filming of the picture, one to get away from Fleming, and two, to return to her love Laurence Olivier, whom she was not allowed to see during filming. Selznick wanted his star to be "pure" and didn't want images of the two taken together.
Still filming on the movie stretched on, with Selznick insisting on re-writes and both he and Fleming pushing themselves physically with stimulants. Tensions stayed raw on everyone's accounts (except reportedly Leslie Howard) and even Fleming walked off the set for 2 weeks, replaced by Sam Wood. Allegedly Fleming left due to exhaustion, but most people believe it was punishment for Selznick's overbearing ways. he eventually returned and filming completed after 125 days.
Editing and effects works began immediately, a situation proven even more difficult with the fact that there was no real shooting script, Selznick having re-written the film so many times the only real copy was in his head. He and the film editors would lock themselves in the editing bays for days at a time, working 22 hours straight often, in order to get the film ready for its release. Many new techniques in special effects were also create on this picture. Much of the scenic shots and every ceiling was a matte painting or painted on glass and seamlessly added to the film. Even the music was done in a rush as Selznick wanted composer Max Steiner and waited until well after filming was completed to engage him on the picture. Steiner was contractually bound to another project at the time. The score was so far behind that when they previewed the first cut of the film in November of 1939, they used the score from the Prisoner of Zenda as enough music had not yet been written to accompany the picture.
Gone with the Wind debuted in Atlanta in December of 1939 and was an instant smash. The film went on to garner 13 (of the then available 17) Oscar nominations that year, winning 10 including best picture, best actress (for Leigh) best supporting actress (Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy the caretaker and was also the first Black actress to be nominated for the award, let alone win.) It also won best screenplay for Howard and for technical achievement in film making. Even Selznick was award for his efforts in film making as a whole. At the time, Gone With the Wind cost nearly 3 million dollars to make, marking it was one of the most expensive films of all time, though it would make it back at the box office. When adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest grossing film of all time, a huge task given it 3 plus hour running time.
Gone WIth the Wind carried a legacy as one of the greatest films of all times, even at the time of it's release. The scale and grandeur was unparalleled and the film's reputation certainly preceded itself. It made Vivian Leigh a star and gave her teh first of two Oscars. Despite being one of Gable's least favorite films, it remains a picture of his legacy. Hell, the legacy of Gone With the Wind would over shadow everything David O. Selznick would do for the rest of his life. Despite his success with films like Rebbecca, Spellbound, and a Duel in the Sun, nothing would ever quite measure up to Gone With the Wind. It cast a shadow on his career as both the pinnacle of his achievement, but the pinnacle of achievement at the zenith of Hollywood's golden age. Eventually Selznick sold the rights away to the film, where they eventually were picked up by MGM. Selznick was known to take gambles on a picture, as evidenced with this one, and it was only a matter of time before his gambling caught up with him. He sold his rights for $400,000 in the early 1940's. in order to keep his studio afloat.
Personally, while not my favorite film of all time, I do mark it as the greatest piece of film making I have ever seen. Every performance is powerful. Leigh literally alights the screen with her passion and the scope of the picture never fails to awe me. If you have never seen this masterpiece, do yourself a favor, and watch it. This is what a film can mean. This is really what a film can be. Gone With the Wind, from Selznick International Pictures.
End of Line.