Gone with the Wind (1939)

I’ve been writing this blog for the last eight years now, and in all that time, while I’ve reviewed some really obscure films, I’ve steered clear of reviewing many of the great classics—mostly because of a fear that I won’t have anything new to say. So much has been written (by people infinitely more qualified than I can ever hope to be) about films like Pyaasa, Citizen Kane, etc that there’s really no reason why anybody would want to read my musings.

But. A couple of weeks back, after years of putting it off, I finally finished reading Gone with the Wind. I’d seen the film when I was in my early teens, and remembered little of it besides the basic story. I decided therefore that it was high time I rewatched the film. Since the book was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare it to the film. And since the film is so beautiful (literally; every other frame looks like a painting), I ended up with a folder full of screenshots.

Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind

The end result? A review. Especially as I realized that 2016 marked the 100th birthday of Olivia de Havilland (she was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916), and that I’d missed that event. So, better late than never: happy 100th, Ms de Havilland!

Olivia de Havilland in Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind is so well-known that I’m not going to go deep into the minor details of the plot. Suffice to say that it stretches over a period of about ten years, beginning on the eve of the American Civil War. On the cotton plantation of Tara in Georgia, we are introduced to the teenaged Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh in what was, to me, the best role of her career): vivacious, beautiful, strong-willed—and also vain, ignorant, manipulative, and appallingly self-centred.

Scarlett. headstrong and flirtatious and selfish

In the course of the evening and the following day’s barbecue and ball at the neighbouring plantation of Twelve Oaks, the other people in Scarlett’s life are introduced. Her father, the hot-headed Irishman Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell), from whom Scarlett inherits much of her impulsiveness. Her mother, Ellen (Barbara O’Neil), dignified and genteel,  kind-hearted and the epitome of the chatelaine everybody looks up to and depends upon.

There are Scarlett’s two younger sisters, Sue Ellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford), Sue Ellen in particular a spoilt brat who throws tantrums whenever she’s thwarted.

The O'Haras, mother, father and daughters - and slaves

And there are, as we see on the day of the barbecue, the young men of the county, almost all of whom are dangling after Scarlett. She is gorgeous, of course, and she knows it. She knows also exactly how to hold her head, how to flutter her eyelashes and flick her skirts. What to say. They hang on every word, scramble to fulfil her every wish, fight for each dance with her.

At the barbecue, Scarlett rules the roost

There is the soft-spoken gentleman, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), heir to Twelve Oaks, whom Scarlett really loves. Loves with a senseless, single-minded focus, so single-minded that it blinds her even to the idea that her love may be one-sided—or at least, not as fully requited as she would like.

At the event, too, is a man whom Scarlett meets for the first time. The disreputable Rhett Butler, whose life is wrapped in scandal and disgraceful dealings. The women whisper about him, the men look down on him for being a blockade runner. And when the men—all of them staunch supporters of the Confederacy—discover Butler’s opinion of their chances of winning an imminent armed conflict with the Yankees (he points out that all they, the South, have is “cotton, slaves, and arrogance”), they hate him even more. Enough for Ashley Wilkes’s cousin, the otherwise wimpy Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks) to challenge Butler to a duel.

Charles Hamilton challenges Rhett Butler to a duel

That never happens—but much else does, on that momentous day at Twelve Oaks. Scarlett hears, from Ashley’s own lips, a confirmation of the rumour that has been worrying her since the previous day: that Ashley is marrying Charles’s sister, Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). And Ashley, though he cannot bring himself to refuse outright that he has any feelings for Scarlett, also makes it very clear that he has no intention of marrying anyone but Melanie.

Scarlett discovers the horrible truth

Scarlett discovers, too, to her mortification, that this humiliating episode has been witnessed by none other than the mocking, jeering Rhett Butler—and (though she does not know it) that it is going to be the start of a relationship that will define a large part of her life over the next decade.

... and has a mortifying experience

And, this is when the Civil War begins. Within days, Scarlett has married Charles Hamilton (to hurt Ashley, a stellar example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face)—and Ashley has married Melanie. The men, Ashley and Charles included, go off to war, and the women are left behind, to wait anxiously for them to return. To pray that they will return.

Gone with the Wind stretches to nearly four hours, and those four hours follow Scarlett O’Hara’s life as she goes from a spoilt, wilful teenager, to a woman desperately struggling to somehow survive, occasionally coming close to the edge of the precipice, but always managing to hang on long enough to pull herself back from the brink. To a woman who puts everything—her reputation, her dignity, her family name—on the line, just so that she may never have to go hungry again.

In the midst of war

A lot happens along the way, and nearly all of it is part of the character arc of Scarlett O’Hara. Every episode helps build up our understanding of who Scarlett is, or of how she’s changing (and, sometimes, remaining the same, too, even though she may seem, on the surface, to be changing).

Plus, it is a story of the Civil War and its effect on Georgia. About how attitudes changed and did not change. About the heady early days, when the Confederacy was certain that it would whip the Yankees without any trouble. The descent from chest-thumping euphoria and extreme self-confidence to a realization that war isn’t all guts and glory, but also a lot of hardship, of hunger and poverty, and—importantly—of dear ones dying or being wounded. It is about women, usually kept shielded from the more brutal realities of life, suddenly being faced with them: having to tend to the wounded in hospitals, having to fend for themselves financially.

Scarlett in an Atlanta in shambles

Casualties

These two aspects—the very personal history of Scarlett herself, and the larger canvas, of the South and its people, both black and white, poor and rich—come together vividly in Gone with the Wind.

What I liked about this film:

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. She won an Oscar for the role, and you can see why: she’s brilliantly convincing—at every stage. From the flighty airhead who wants nothing more than to have the eligible male population of the county at her feet, to the hard-as-nails, unscrupulous and manipulative widow who will do anything to be rich, secure, with Ashley.

Scarlett and a still-unattainable Ashley

I remember, the first time I watched this film, I found myself hating Scarlett: how could anybody be so utterly selfish? This time round, an older (and hopefully wiser) me could appreciate in that not just Margaret Mitchell’s skill at characterization, but also Victor Fleming’s direction—and, most importantly, Vivien Leigh’s acting. Her eyes are so expressive that there are many scenes where, even without dialogue (or, worse, a voiceover), you can pretty much guess just what Scarlett is thinking.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

Besides Leigh, I also like the rest of the cast. True, Clark Gable’s role doesn’t require him to be too different from the run-of-the-mill ‘hero’. And true, too, that Leslie Howard is a little too old to have been cast as Ashley Wilkes, but age apart, he manages to capture the essence of the man: upright, brave, too—yet, in many ways, spineless and indecisive. Olivia de Havilland makes for a perfect Melanie, sweet, kind, gentle, but with unexpected strength of character, too: a woman who will stand up against the rest of the town gentry to do what is right (to befriend a ‘bad woman’ because her heart is in the right place).

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes

Then, there’s the look of it. Like Blood and Sand, this is one of those films I could watch and rewatch just because it’s such a feast for the eyes. Vivien Leigh, of course, is stunning, but so are the backdrops, all the way from the beautifully twisty and gnarled old tree standing tall against the sunset…

Tara

… to the staircase, extending up to the upper floors of Scarlett’s house.

A frame from Gone with the Wind

The cinematography is excellent, and the lighting makes every other frame look like a painting. You can see, for instance, just how much effort must have gone into making certain parts of this frame look dark while providing just enough light, from just the right angles, to make this look so perfect:

Gone with the Wind - Vivien Leigh

What I didn’t like, and some comparisons:

I can’t, in all truth, say there was something about Gone with the Wind that I outright didn’t like (Prissy’s laziness irritated me, but then, that’s what defines her character). However, because I’d just finished reading the book, it was easy to see the similarities and the differences between the book and the film—and that made me think about why some things, some plot elements, were left out, and how they made a difference to the film.

Let’s begin with how well the film compares to the book. Brilliantly. I’d say that this is one of the best book-to-cinema adaptations I’ve seen. One advantage, of course, is that it’s a long film: squeezing a long, sweeping novel like this into two hours would have been an injustice to the novel, but four hours accomplishes the task.

Not that everything there is in the book is also there in the film. One major gap between the two (and which actually makes up a good deal of Mitchell’s book) is the description of attitudes: towards women, towards blacks, towards Yankees, towards white trash, towards the changing socio-economic and political scenario. Mitchell explains these in a good bit of detail, but you only see isolated incidents here and there in the film that touch upon these. For me, reading the book left me with a very vivid sense of the South just before, during and after the Civil War; watching the film left me with a picture of a woman, dauntless and strong. The focus changes. The book: Scarlett and society and war. The film: Scarlett, against a somewhat more blurred backdrop of the war.

There are only a couple of major differences in plot elements, the most important being that in the book, Scarlett has three children instead of just one. This hardly makes a difference, really, except that in the one scene in the film where Scarlett realizes she’ll have to act as midwife to Melanie, she knows exactly what she will need—the hot water and rags, of course, but also the twine, the scissors, and so on. Not something most gently bred young women would probably have known back then, but this is plausible in the book because Scarlett thinks back to when she was giving birth.

Also (spoiler ahead), Rhett’s disintegration when Bonnie dies is not quite as shatteringly complete in the film as it is in the book (was that a result of Hollywood not being willing to let its heroes shown to be weak?). In the film, too, Rhett is more directly responsible for Bonnie’s death: he has not just taught her riding and jumping (which is what he blames himself for in the film); he has allowed her to raise the bar to an unsafe level. In the film, Bonnie does it of her own accord, and defies her parents, who can’t even run down to stop her before she’s off, jumping a rail that’s too high.

Spoiler over.

But, all said and done: a great book, and a film that’s a worthy adaptation. If you haven’t seen this yet, do. It’s unforgettable.

Gone with the Wind - Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable

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35 thoughts on “Gone with the Wind (1939)

  1. I had the good fortune to read the book just before the movie had a re-run in a cinema hall in Bombay in 1989. Normally, I’m never satisfied with the film-version of a book, because it is always different from the images, one has built up in one’s mind, but here I was more than satisfied, elated one can say. I loved the book and the film at that time. Since then I’ve been catching snatches of the film on TV, but it doesn’t do much to me. The splendour of the big screen might be missing or my attitudes have changed, don’t know what. Nevertheless, the euphoric feeling, I had when I saw the movie in the big cinema hall still remains with me.
    Thank you for the nice review and the splendid screen shots.

    • I’ll agree with you about being ‘elated’ at how well the film reflected the book, Harvey. Most films are such terrible adaptations – even if they aren’t bad films themselves – that this came as a breath of fresh air. A great book, and a great film.

      I suppose we all change with time. I do know of several films that I loved when I was younger, but towards which I’ve cooled off with the passage of time. Or vice-versa: films I didn’t like but which now I love.

      Thank you for the appreciation! :-)

  2. I agree. This is one of the BEST book to screen adaptations. The book is better, of course. Margaret Mitchell’s portrayal of Scarlett O Hara is simply excellent in the book. The movie tones down her meanness a little, I feel.

    I did not like Leslie Howard one bit as Ashley when I first saw the movie. I had a definite picture of Ashley in my mind, Leslie simply didn’t measure up.

    Viven Leigh is simply SUPERB. The movie is one of my all time favorites, so is the book.

    • I couldn’t bear Leslie Howard as Ashley the first time I saw this film, Ava! But then, Leslie Howard has never been a favourite of mine – which was why I was so disappointed in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I kept wishing it featured someone I liked better, since I love the story so.

      I do agree that the movie tones down Scarlett’s meanness somewhat, but that may be because – as far as I was concerned – I thought a good bit of her meanness in the book emerges because we are made privy to her thoughts. Which doesn’t always happen in the movie. Still, she’s selfish and nasty enough even in the film. And yes, how well acted! Vivien Leigh is brilliant.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful review of a movie I just love to watch over and over again! I read the book over two days when I was about 15 years old, reading late into the night, using a flashlight with the blanket over my head! The book was a cloth bound edition, presented by my father to my mother shortly after they viewed the movie, long before I was born. Unfortunately, in the course of their many moves, that book is now lost, and I do wish someone would find it and return it to me, but that will never happen.
    We own this movie on Laser Disc, and even though nobody watches Laser Disc any more, we still own the player and these discs because I won’t let the man give them away. He has said he will get them on blu-ray, but I want these because they are so good.
    There was a time when I used to be able to quote passages from the book, and I probably still could, considering the number of times I have read it, but I haven’t read it in some years now, so I don’t know about that any more. I just love the beauty of the filming, the tension building up when they are waiting for the men to return from their ‘meeting’, the scenes with Prissy and the ride back to Tara with Melanie and the baby in the back, Scarlett wishing she could dance with the rest of them in Charleston, and Rhett, guessing correctly, bids for a dance with her, and so on.
    I could go on and on, but you must be bored already. Thank you for a great review of one of my favorite films!

    • Your anecdotes about the book and the movie are as readable as the book itself, Lalitha! That really made me smile. :-) I don’t think I ever read any book by torchlight under the covers – my parents were very permissive that way, so my sister and I were allowed to read just whatever we wanted, whenever and however we wanted. I remember reading the complete Sherlock Holmes in the midst of my Xth Class Board Exams.

      “There was a time when I used to be able to quote passages from the book, and I probably still could

      You would fit right into Fahrenheit 451! But, seriously, I am so impressed by people who can do that. The only passages I can quote from any books are probably from Pride and Prejudice (thevery shortest, most famous sentences), and the Bible, KJV. Perhaps some Wodehouse.

      • Oh, the reading under the blanket was done because it was way past my bedtime! And my father did come to check on me and catch me in the act several times! Reading was and is a family pastime in my family though my mother would grumble about it when the boys would be immersed in their books during our visits to India!

        • “Oh, the reading under the blanket was done because it was way past my bedtime!

          Ah. :-) Somehow, my parents and we were in agreement on that. During the school holidays, my sister and I could pretty much read as long as we wanted (which, since the two of us shared a room, had to be worked out in mutual agreement). Occasionally, if we read till too late into the night, a parent – often our mother – would come into scold us, but that didn’t happen too often. And while school was in session, we – of our own accord – regulated our reading times. In any case, I was in the habit of rushing home and finishing all my homework as soon as I possibly could, so that the rest of the day could be devoted to reading.

  4. Echoing what you said about the film being one of the best adapted, proving that when Hollywood sets out to do something well, they tend to get it right. (Also, that they don’t seem to want to do so quite as often.) Like you, teenage me hated Scarlett. I haven’t rewatched it – who has 4 hours? and I would hate to watch this piecemeal – and perhaps I will change my opinion too. I do remember thinking that Ashley Wilkes needed a spine in his back, a tongue in his head, and a swift kick up his pants. But I also remember that I was completely gobsmacked by Vivien Leigh – what an absolutely beautiful woman she was! Its filming was as lengthy and complicated and controversial as the events in the book. (Critics complained that the film glorified slavery.)

    was that a result of Hollywood not being willing to let its heroes shown to be weak?

    From what I read, Clark Gable refused to cry on screen. :)

    I’d like to read the book again; I remember reading it at one sitting when I was in college. (I read the book years after I watched the film.) One amusing thing that I read about it – possibly apocryphal – is that when Margaret Mitchell was asked if she would write a sequel, she’s said to have retorted, ‘And what would I call it? ‘Back with the Breeze’?

    Thank you for this review – it’s one of your best; and that’s saying something.

    • Ashley Wilkes is irritating, isn’t he? Yes, he’s noble and wise and whatnot, but to not know his own mind, to tell one woman he loves her, but is marrying another – now that is selfishness.

      You know, I do agree that the film – while not ‘glorifying’ slavery, at least does tend to take a lenient view of it and present slaves as being fairly well off. That struck me, too, but it also struck me that it’s a reflection of the book – the book has almost exactly the same attitude towards blacks. (In fact, there’s a passage there about how the Yankee women seemed to consider Harriet Beecher Stowe as the ultimate authority on blacks in the South).

      “‘And what would I call it? ‘Back with the Breeze’?

      Hehe! I hadn’t known that. :-) Incidentally, when I posted my review of the book on Goodreads and shared it on Facebook, someone told me that the sequel is pretty good, too.

      I’m so glad you liked the review, Anu. Coming from someone like you, that means a lot. Thank you!

        • I saw the movie on TV and it was unbearable. The actress portraying Scarlett had no screen presence at all and the story-line was so weak, that I left it mid-way.
          I’d say, hands off!

          • Okay… I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding here. :-) I had been talking about a sequel to the book, and hadn’t realized that there was a sequel to the movie. Both sound equally avoidable.

            (Now I’m wondering if Anu was talking about the book sequel or the movie sequel).

        • Ah, so my take on it (I told that person that from my experience, I’d come to the conclusion that most ‘homage’ fiction never quite matched up to the original) wasn’t so far off the mark. ;-) Thank goodness I didn’t rush off right then and order the book!

          • I’m talking about the book sequel, not the one to the movie.(Thankfully, I hadn’t realised there was a TV series based on this book!)

            Scarlett is not homage fiction, however. The Margaret Mitchell estate has been over-scrupulous in pursuing (and getting banned) a couple of unauthorised ‘sequels’ – but this one (and two others) was authorised. It was 829 pages of probably the worst soap-opera you could find.

            Honestly, it went on and on (and on) and Scarlett and Rhett would meet and part and meet and part and meet and part, until a murder and arson and a hunting down of Scarlett later, Rhett rides in to rescue her and they walk off into the sunset. (Such inconvenient things like Rhett’s wife are conveniently disposed off to allow them to do so.) Aaargh! No!

            • Good Lord. That sounds awful.

              On a related note, most authorised ‘sequels’ baffle me: they make me wonder why the estates of the author in question allowed the work. Over the past year, I’ve read authorised sequels of the Wooster-Jeeves series, Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and the girl with the dragon tattoo – and none have been anywhere as good as the original.

  5. Madhu,
    Great review of a great film. You have captured the essence of the South. But no mention of Gone With the Wind can be complete without the place of the black Mammy in the household. Hattie McDaniel lived the part fetching her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress award. One aspect of white-black relationship was of a benevolent master, something akin to the family retainer in our society. The end of slavery was also a period of disorientation for a number of blacks who were bound in such relationships.

    The film goes from the idyllic countryside of church, dresses, ball and match-making to the gore of war. The first part takes you to the novels of English countryside of the period. It is beautiful and nostalgic. The American Civil War, I believe is the bloodiest in the history of mankind. The film presents it in all starkness, and also captures how each side fights for a ’cause’.
    AK

    • “The end of slavery was also a period of disorientation for a number of blacks who were bound in such relationships.

      Very true. The film doesn’t dwell on it much, but the book brings forth that aspect. And I agree about Hattie McDaniel as Mammy – she was excellent, and pretty much exactly how she’s depicted in the book. I remember reading some trivia about how (because of racist laws) she wasn’t invited for the premiere of the film – and Clark Gable refused to go too, in protest. He eventually attended because she persuaded him. And she was the first African-American to attend the Oscar Awards ceremony as a guest rather than a servant. (It gives me the shivers to realize that, till 1939 – or was it 40, by the time this award was given out? – people actually took black servants to the Oscar ceremonies).

      Thank you for the appreciation, AK. Glad you liked this review.

  6. Truly, what can one say about GWTW that has not been said a thousand times already? It’s a hoary cliche, but so true—they don’t make films like that any more.

    My father took me to Metro theatre (Mumbai) to see this film a long, long time ago, but I have no memories of that experience. I have seen it on DVD many times and will do so many times more. Next to seeing it on the big screen, the remastered DVD with surround sound is the best way to experience it. Yes, for GWTW is one of those films to be experienced, not just seen. The production values, the cinematography with its stunning vistas, rich interiors, vivid colours, the acting—I could go on and on. But, it’s all been said before, and by far better wordsmiths (including you, Madhulikajee),

    A film is said to be the brainchild of its director. But GWTW owes far more to its producer, David O. Selznick. He had a vision of the film he wanted to make and, clashed with his director(s) regularly and frequently. Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood, Cameron Menzies, all worked on it. Yet, ultimately it was Selznick’s film.

    When I read the book, I was, like most people, impressed and overwhelmed by the spectacular sweep of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. I was also, like most non-whites, I suspect, disturbed at the unthinking, even uncaring, racism she portrayed almost nostalgically. Apropos racism, there’s an interesting titbit of information about GWTW. The film was nominated for many Oscars and was confidently expected to almost sweep the Academy Awards. But Hattie McDaniel, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, would not be allowed to attend because she was black! This so upset Gable that he threatened to boycott the function. He refused to change his mind despite all the studio’s pleas and threats. It was only after McDaniel’s intercession and persuasion that he was prevailed upon to attend.

    Another bit of trivia about GWTW concerns arguably its most famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Gable utters the line with the emphasis on the word “give”. In any spoken sentence with an expletive the stress is always on the expletive. That sentence should end with the “damn” coming out forcefully, almost like a bullet, which is the way Mitchell, no doubt, intended. But the MGM people were wary of the censors who, in those days, were finicky about permitting swear-words. And damn, with its Christian religious connotations, was dicey. Yet it could not be changed, for it was already and justly among the most famous lines of the book, and eminently suited to the screen. So, to get it in and, at the same time, soften the blow, Gable was reputedly asked to shift the emphasis from “damn” to “give”.

    For a slightly Freudian take on the film, see Roger Ebert’s review.

    • And your comment does justice to the film. :-) Very insightful, and very interesting! Thank you for that. Yes, I do remember hearing that the ‘damn’ had been very controversial, and that it had been retained because it was such an integral part of Mitchell’s book – but I hadn’t noticed the difference in emphasis on ‘give’ and ‘damn’. Must go back and have another look at that scene.

      The racism is pretty nonchalant in the book, too, isn’t it? Even though Mitchell mentions – in derisive tones – how the Yankee women seemed to think the world of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her depiction of slavery, the impression one gets of the South Mitchell conjures up is one that also pretty much echoes, if in sugarcoated ways, the stereotypes one sees in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the authoritative, dependable, almost-like-family servant Mammy, the lazy bum, unable to think for herself Prissy, the maddened and irresponsible and dangerous blacks of the shanty towns…. one gets the idea that African-Americans fall into two neat categories: the trustworthy, who are tied to the whites and loyal to them, no matter what; and the others. No in betweens, no shades of grey.

      Despite that, though. such a fine film, and – as you so aptly put it – a film to be experienced, not merely seen.

    • Recently we downloaded The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. I just checked to see whether you have reviewed it, I did not find it. I am wondering on whose recommendation did we think of downloading the film, anyway it is a very thought provoking film. Initially from the title I thought it was a whodunit and I was a bit disappointed but later I just loved it. I strongly recommend it, oh now that I have set your hopes high, hope you do not find it a damp squib as they say.

  7. Although Vivien Leigh is my favourite actress, I came quite late to this movie. And yes, she was astonishing in this, as in her other Oscar winning role in Streetcar. Other favourites are Waterloo Bridge and Ship of Fools. Oh-and St. Martin’s Lane. I could go on! Great review.

    • Thank you so much, both for the appreciation and for the recommendations. I have to admit I’ve seen very little of Vivien Leigh – this, Waterloo Bridge, Caesar and Cleopatra – and I think that’s about it. I shall certainly check out the films you’ve mentioned.

  8. I wish I had time to read your review right now, but life has another agenda. A book I read in high school, took an entire summer holiday, saw the movie twice, once in India and then in US on TV before DVDs riddled with commercials. Both the book and the movie left a lasting mpression. I know I will want to revisit he movie after reading your review, your reviews are so rivetting, I will be back..

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