Wednesday, November 3, 2021

This Is War, Not a Garden Party

You might walk out of the theater after seeing Gone with the Wind (1939) into the cool, head-clearing night air feeling exhilarated but maybe a little headachy. The first half is all epic and panorama. The last third is bogged down in expensive romance melodrama, an example of movie proto-fatigue. But the structure sort of works in Wind’s favor: audiences are more energetic when the movie is likewise more energetic — for the first ninety minutes — so all that splendor isn’t wasted. Anyone inclined to wonder whether the mighty Wind really merits its eighty years of adulation usually just remembers the first half. When characters die in the first half, like Scarlett’s first husband, it’s sometimes treated comically, and good comedy is always memorable. Even dotty Gerald’s fatal fall from a horse is rather humorous, and I’ve heard audiences laugh at his stentorian senility. In fact, literally all the abundant comedy in the movie occurs earlier, from the Peahen and Buffalo League (Laura Hope Crews, Jane Darwell, and Mary Anderson) to Uncle Peter (Eddie Anderson) to Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks in baby curls) to the rollicking, blunt Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). The “intimate” melodrama of the last third is sodden and serious and tends to blur in the memory (excepting the passionate fans who have seen Wind eighty times).

Father-daughter time. Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Gone with the Wind is meritorious for its saturated three-strip Technicolor, gaudy production design (including a number of famous matte paintings), pullback and crane shots against blazing sunsets and silhouettes of gnarled oaks, and actors who manage to stand out prominently against the size and scope of this cinematic gargantua. The power that the actors have, despite the lopsidedness the movie gives to production values, is miraculous. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport (“Good heavens, woman, this is war, not a garden party!”), Ward Bond, Alicia Rhett, and even brief scene stealers like Cliff Edwards, Paul Hurst (as the sinister Yankee deserter), and Eric Linden (the amputee who puts real terror in his scene and nearly upends the movie) make Wind a vivid personality parade. I guess that the actors’ all-around success is mostly attributable to the director, Victor Fleming, and the care David O. Selznick lavished on casting. By comparison, think of how many actors get swamped by the production in other humongous movies, from the Joseph L. Mankiewicz Cleopatra (1963) to David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) — none of them known for shimmering, zesty acting, the way Gone with the Wind is. Its performances weren’t just stellar but influential, too. Leigh’s Scarlett scared and inspired a generation of actresses after her, from Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946) to Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (1957), who copied her enigmatic combination of gusto and regal bearing.
The movie represents another miracle. After all its sweep and energy and calculated precision, it is, after all, an indie movie. Selznick International was an independent studio that nonetheless made movies the Big Studio way, filming prestige literary properties, building a stable of stars and directors, subcontracting stars from other studios, raising funds from East Coast banks and investors, and slathering movies with mass-production gloss without actually ever going into mass production (only a couple of Selznick movies were produced every year, from 1936 to about 1948). There isn’t much difference in the look of the typical Selznick movie and the big-budget movies from Warner Brothers or MGM: The Garden of Allah (1936), A Star Is Born (1937), Intermezzo (1939), Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Duel in the Sun (1946) all look and play as if they came right off the major studio assembly lines. That’s their “personality.” Selznick was an intrusive, busybody producer who controlled every aspect of filming, usually driving his actors and directors nuts, and his movies both gain and suffer for it. The Selznick palette is broad and banal, but the details — including the performances — are often crazily energetic.

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