A few months ago, on November 16-18, Debra Vega of Moon in Gemini hosted The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon. I joined eagerly a few months in advance. This blogathon fell at a particularly busy time for my website, so I decided to get an early start on the article. However, despite the head-start I tried to give myself, I ran into some serious delays and debilitating writer’s block. In addition, the last thousand words of my finally-completed draft were delighted, so I had to re-write them. Thankfully, Debbie was very understanding, and she agreed to include my article no matter how late I published it. Thus, I am now publishing a very tardy entry in her blogathon.
I always admire unusual blogathon topics, so I appreciate the uniqueness of this idea. Participants are to write about famous, classic, critically-acclaimed, or really well-known films which they never got around to seeing for years. When I heard about this blogathon, I began to think of popular films I hadn’t seen. Then, I remembered the iconic film which I didn’t watch for years but about which I heard from everyone. I watched this film for the first time last July, but I haven’t written about it yet. I decided to use this blogathon as an opportunity to write about this film, which many consider to be the greatest motion picture ever made. My topic is David O. Selznick’s Southern drama, Gone with the Wind from 1939.
I am not going to retell the story of Gone with the Wind. It is a beloved tale which is very well-known. For me to condense the film’s long synopsis here would be tedious and redundant. Instead, I am going to go straight to my opinions and impressions of this film.
My family and I started watching this film for the first time while we were eating dessert after dinner one evening. Naturally, we didn’t expect to watch the whole thing that evening. It was free on Amazon Video, so we thought we might as well start it. My first impression was that the credits were too long and that it looked like it had been made much later than 1939. In fact, the film looked frighteningly modern to me. I don’t know if that’s because of David Selznick’s unique cinematographic style or because of extreme remastering. I have a strange aversion to seeing classic films looking too modern. However, I quickly overcame that when I began to see old friends from classic films that I have watched for years, such as Ann Rutherford and Thomas Mitchell. We watched about half an hour of the film that evening before going to bed. Honestly, that part of the movie didn’t impress me greatly. I thought it was interesting, but I certainly didn’t think it deserved the acclaim which I had heard about it. A few days later, we decided to watch some more of the movie while eating lunch. However, we got so captivated with it that we were unable to stop. The movie became very exciting at this point, so we ended up watching the rest of it! In September, we watched the movie in its entirety for the second time.
This film is definitely a great film in many ways. It has many impressive elements. The cast features an amazing array of talent from the height of Hollywood’s glory. I appreciate the ingenuity which was used to create the special effects. There is a lot of amazing realism. The acting is very impressive, and the script is active, lively, and clever. I do appreciate the sweeping drama of this movie. I think that it is a little too long, but it is amazing that so much time could be packed with never-ending drama and action. At times, I think there is a little too much drama, specifically regarding the use of silhouettes against colorful skies, accompanied by Max Steiner’s manipulatively sweeping score. However, it fits this movie, which does not claim or attempt to use a lot of subtlety. In conclusion, I was very impressed by the fact that I felt like this movie transported me to the South during the Civil War.
This movie features some of the most famous characters to ever appear on the motion picture screen. Leading them is Rhett Butler, the romantic scoundrel who was brought to life by Clark Gable. I really enjoyed Mr. Gable’s performance in this film. His character appears in an early scene, but his role in the actual plot isn’t very large until the film’s second half. However, his impetuous confidence shines in every scene in which you see him. I liked seeing the development of the character as the story-line progresses. In his early scenes, he seems like a very self-assured rogue who knows little loyalty but understands the folly of the proud Southerners. He is clearly a womanizer, but as such he sees through Scarlett’s feigned sweetness and vain selfishness. Later on, he tries to help Scarlett really enjoy her life. He offers her his wealth, his fun, and his love in a proposal of marriage. She accepts, but he clearly loves her more than she loves him. She is incapable of real love. To me, the sweetest aspect of this character is his relationship with his daughter, Bonnie. Scarlett is interested in her daughter, but she doesn’t adore her like Rhett does. I was touched to see how sweet Clark Gable was with the little girl. His tender paternal quality is his most endearing aspect in this role. It shows that he has a softer, sweeter side than the one you usually see. I think Clark Gable really deserved his Academy Award for this performance.
Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most famous female characters in literature. The entire film is based around this fiery, selfish Southern girl’s life. David Selznick’s search for the perfect Scarlett is legendary, as he considered and screen-tested dozens of Hollywood actresses and conducted highly-publicized nationwide searches for an unknown. Eventually, he cast the British Vivien Leigh, much to the chagrin of many American fans, who disliked a foreigner in the famous American role. Ultimately, Miss Leigh proved to the be the right choice for the role, since she was critically acclaimed and earned a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. I think that she does a very convincing Southern accent. I appreciate the way she showed the character’s change from a flighty, immature girl to a hardhearted, selfish woman. Personally, I dislike this character intensely. I think she ranges from silly and irritating at her best moments to wickedly cruel at her worst. However, I mean this as no criticism of Vivien Leigh. I think she embodied the horrible character very well. Ultimately, I can’t pity Scarlett for anything that happens to her, since I believe she brings her ill fate upon herself through her devious, foolish behavior.
Melanie Wilkes nee Hamilton is my favorite character in this movie. I think she is played beautifully by the lovely Olivia de Havilland. She is so sweet, kind, and generous. Her unselfishness seems almost angelic compared to Scarlett’s harshness. I think that Miss de Havilland gives a marvelous performance in the role; she definitely deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination. Even though she wears drabber clothes and is sickly for most of the movie, Melanie always looks beautiful. I think that her devotion and love for Ashley is very touching. Even though he is often weak and broken, she is devoted to him heart and soul, whether he is with her or away at war. She is a shining example of forgiveness and acceptance of others. She is the only woman who will be kind to Belle Watson, a woman of questionable repute. I think her noblest scene is on the night of Ashley’s birthday party. Rumors have been spread about Scarlett and Ashley; in response to them, Rhett makes Scarlett face the consequences of her actions by going to the party in a revealing red dress. When she enters alone, all the guests glare at her. Then, Melanie comes over and embraces her. She tenderly leads her sister-in-law around, saying she is so glad to see her. She tells one of the other guests, “Our Scarlett is here.” Her kindness toward Scarlett is so tender that it unintentionally puts the other woman to shame more than any harsh words could.
Ashley Wilkes is the fourth lead in this drama. From the movie’s opening, it is clear that Scarlett loves him. However, she is devastated to realize that he plans to marry his cousin Melanie. Despite the fact that Scarlett had many other beaux, she was determined to marry Ashley. Before his marriage, Ashley tells Scarlett he loves her, but he thinks Melanie will be a good wife for him. Out of spite, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother, who dies in the Civil War. Although she goes on to have two more husbands, the only man she loves is Ashley. Many actors, including Lew Ayres, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Melvyn Douglas, and Ray Milland, were considered for this role, but Mr. Selznick always envisioned Leslie Howard as Ashley. Mr. Howard himself felt that he was too old for the role, and I agree that, even with the additional makeup and toupee, he doesn’t look twenty-one. I think that Leslie Howard gives an excellent performance in the role, but I think that he is rather odd casting for the part. Unlike Vivien Leigh, who masked her British accent in a Southern drawl, Mr. Howard sounds decidedly English. I often wonder why Scarlett loves him so much. He isn’t terribly handsome, and he does look a little old for her. His main problem to me is his weakness. He is a sensitive, mild gentleman before the war and a broken shadow of a man afterwards. Personally, I would have cast Lew Ayres in the role. However, Leslie Howard created the character very well, and I think that he did a good job of bringing the role to life, despite the unlikeliness of the character for him.
There are a lot of marvelous supporting actors who add great depth to the film. Hattie McDaniels is wise, spunky, and funny as the lovable Mammy, who accompanies Scarlett through her various trials and tribulations. Ann Rutherford is very convincing as Scarlett’s younger sister, Careen, and I appreciate her character’s growth as the film progresses. Evelyn Keyes delivers a stirring performance as the disturbed and sometimes hysterical third sister, Suellen, whose only love is stolen by her selfish sister. My favorite supporting character is Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father. Thomas Mitchell is animated and lovable as the plantation owner with a strong, realistic Irish brogue. He goes from being a concerned, fun-loving father to a raving lunatic after his wife dies. I was very impressed by the way Mr. Mitchell depicted a madman; it is quite chilling. The rest of the actors are excellent, as well.
This movie is almost as famous for one controversial line as it is for its epic length and historical drama. Even movie fans who have not seen Gone with the Wind have heard of Rhett Butler’s iconic exit line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a – .” Released in December of 1939, this movie was in the middle of the Breen Code Era, yet it contains a line which is in direct violation of the Production Code’s section on profanity, which specifically banned the final word in Rhett’s line. Thus, the word was a subject of great controversy at the time of the film’s release and remains so to this day, despite the fact that such profanity is now common in even mildly-rated films. Many think that this was the first instance that this word was said in a motion picture, but that is not true. It was being used in pre-Code talkies made ten years earlier. How did that word manage to slip through the strict rules of the Production Code Administration? Let’s review the interesting history involving this film’s self-regulation.
Margaret Mitchell’s widely-acclaimed novel contained much profanity, gory violence, immoral amorous relationships, controversial topics, racial slurs, and superfluous vulgarity. People balked that the novel could ever be a motion picture because of its length, but its content made it dubious source material for a Code film. However, David Selznick was stubborn and undaunted. He was determined to make the film and get a Seal of Approval, even if it meant making some concessions.
From the beginning of the film’s self-regulation process, it was a battle between filmmakers and self-regulators. Dozens if not hundreds of letters, memos, meetings, set visits, telegrams, and telephone calls went into the breening of this motion picture. To speed the process and spare himself a lot of time-consuming heckling, David Selznick appointed Val Lewton as the official go-between for him and the PCA. The filmmakers eliminated most of the profanity and coped with several subplot eliminations, since the story had to be simplified anyway. However, Mr. Selznick was stubbornly determined to keep many elements which Mr. Breen was determined to remove.
One thing which Mr. Selznick stubbornly wanted to keep was the use of an offensive derogatory name for black people. It was used in the novel by black and white people alike. Mr. Selznick thought he was being very democratic and racially fair by eliminating the use of the word by white people. He thought that it was perfectly acceptable for black people to refer to each other by this name, despite the fact that it was specifically banned by the PCA’s list of offensive racial terms. The PCA members knew from experience that that was not a word which was unlikely to give offense. When they had made an exception and allowed it to be used in a 1937 film, offended patrons threw bricks through movie screens. Eventually, David Selznick conceded and changed the offending word to darkie in all instances.
Another point, which is surprisingly trivial in a movie with so many serious problems, was the fact that Scarlett burped at the barbecue. David Selznick seemed to feel that it was necessary, but the PCA held that it was vulgar and offensive. The PCA won, with the only concession being that Scarlett was allowed to say that she was afraid she would belch before going to the barbecue.
Another controversial element was Melanie’s childbirth scene. As the city is being invaded, the expectant Melanie goes into labor. The mansion is occupied only by the expectant mother, Scarlett, and a dim-witted slave named Prissy. The doctors are busily tending to the wounded soldiers, so Scarlett must deliver the baby. For some reason, Mr. Selznick thought it was necessary to show this childbirth scene. The Code specifically states that scenes of actual childbirth may not be depicted on the screen, and the PCA was determined to uphold this rule. Censor boards throughout the country were offended by scenes of this nature, as were public sensibilities. I think that this rule was a very important one, since it was based on respect for women and the institution of motherhood. I don’t know how much Mr. Selznick wanted to show. He couldn’t have gone into too many gory details even if he wanted to, since Miss de Havilland was not really expecting a baby. The PCA felt that the less shown of this process, the better. Ultimately, they compromised. Melanie’s weary and pained face is shown, and we see Scarlett and Prissy tending to her. Then, we hear Scarlett’s voice as we see a silhouette of her tending to her sister-in-law. Then, we see Melanie’s holding her infant. I think that this was a tasteful and decent depiction of birth. What more do you need to see?
One of the larger points of contention involved the character Belle Watson, the madam of a house of ill repute. She is Rhett Butler’s friend and ally, and she is a very important part of the plot. She gives a large amount of money to the Confederate cause, but only Melanie will accept her kindness and her donation. Later, she helps Rhett protect Ashley, Scarlett’s second husband, and some other Southern men from being arrested. However, the Code strictly forbade the depiction of women “of the oldest profession” and houses of ill repute. Thus, there were long and heated debates about this character. The PCA wanted to give her a definite, respectable profession or at least to veil her dubious occupation. It also was deemed necessary to tone down the depiction of her place of business as a location of sin. One situation which was considered too pointed by the PCA was an exchange between one of the respectable women and her husband, in which she curiously asks about the curtains and other decorations of Belle’s establishment, knowing that Rhett took him there to protect him from the Yankee authority. Fans of this film will remember that the exchange remains. Ultimately, Belle Watson was allowed to remain relatively unchanged. Her profession is not clearly defined or stated. However, it is obvious that she has a bad reputation. She wears heavy makeup and brightly-colored clothes, which add to her appearance as a “painted lady.” Neither she nor her house are ever called by any defining names, but everyone who talks about the film refers to her as a loose woman. The situation is not indecent, but it isn’t as vague as the PCA wanted it to be.
Aside from the infamous line, the largest fight was about the scene in which Rhett carries Scarlett upstairs and the scene the next morning. I understand that the filmmakers originally wanted to show something of what happened after they arrived at the top of the stairs, but that was removed early in the writing process. As it remains, Rhett grabs Scarlett and carries her up the red velvet staircase as she struggles. The scene fades out. It was generally agreed that that scene could remain, since the couple is married, and Rhett’s brutish behavior can be explained by his anger and drunkenness. What continued to bother the PCA was the next morning, when Scarlett is seen happily humming in bed as she is brought breakfast. Then, Rhett enters and apologizes for his behavior the previous night, saying that he got carried away. Mr. Breen described Scarlett’s behavior as “licking her chops,” which he saw as unduly pointed and suggestive. David O. Selznick insisted that the scene was necessary and very important in the fact that it showed how Scarlett’s perception of Rhett had changed, since she enjoyed his romantic behavior. Joe Breen consulted two other PCA members for their opinions. Carl Lischka agreed with him; Geoffrey Shurlock sided with David Selznick. Eventually, the sequence was allowed to remain. It had been significantly changed from its original version, but, like so many elements in this film, not as much as the PCA had hoped.
David Selznick, Victor Fleming, Vivien Leigh, and Clark Gable
Finally, we come to the last problem, Rhett’s infamous line. The line was considered to be one of the most poignant and famous moments in the novel. Mr. Selznick insisted that audiences would be disappointed if the line was not included. However, the PCA maintained the opinion that the line must be cut, since it contained a forbidden word and would be offensive to some. Instead, they suggested the line, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t care.” Mr. Selznick was not pleased with this suggestion, but he knew that the PCA could be very insistent. He was determined to film the scene his way, but he didn’t want to lose money by having to refilm if they were denied a Seal of Approval. Thus, he protected himself by shooting the scene with both the breened line and his preferred line. This was called shooting a cover.
On September 9, 1939, a sneak preview of Gone with the Wind was held at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California. As you can see from the playbill pictured above, the film was played at 8:15 as just a “major studio preview.” Audiences did not know what film they would be seeing, since it was top-secret. In attendance that night were David Selznick, a few other filmmakers involved, and Joseph I. Breen. When the title appeared on the screen, the audience stood and cheered, since they had been hearing about the film for months. The reaction to the movie was extremely enthusiastic, despite the fact that the breened version of the famous line was included. Afterwards, Joe Breen took David Selznick aside and told him that he had made the greatest motion picture the self-regulator had ever seen. I think that they may have been a bit of blarney, but Mr. Breen liked to encourage filmmakers so that they would stay in line. The PCA was satisfied with the numerous changes that had been made to the film, and they were ready to issue a Seal of Approval for distribution. However, David Selznick was still not satisfied.
In 1939, war was brewing in Europe. England had joined World War II, so the Nazi activity was a common topic in American media. Because of this, the four-letter word which David O. Selznick was so desperate to include in his film was being allowed on the radio and in some print publications. This made Mr. Selznick start thinking about his “rights.” Why should he be forced to have his characters say “I don’t care” when others could use profanity? He complained to Mr. Breen that the PCA was trying to keep films in their adolescence. Joseph Breen did not appreciate this grousing. He told Mr. Selznick not to complain to him, since he was just enforcing the rules of the Code. If Selznick had a complaint with his judgement, he could appeal to the MPPDA board in New York. Mr. Selznick took his advice, and he was granted an exception by the board. Mr. Breen congratulated him and granted a Seal of Approval to the version of the film which included the infamous line. Mr. Selznick had his way, and the film was distributed with the line. To make exceptions of this sort Code-compliant, the MPPDA passed an amendment on November 1, 1939, which permitted the use of the two most common profane words under special circumstances. These special circumstances were always reserved for extreme cases. Thus, David O. Selznick had his way.
There was a lot of squabbling over this line which David Selznick thought was so necessary for his film. He argued about it, fought for it, and eventually won. He seemed to think that he was fighting for his producer’s rights. He acted like he wanted very little. However, on closer examination of the whole film, he had a huge nerve for pushing for that one line. He had already been given far more leeway than he deserved.
In addition to the numerous controversial elements I have mentioned, there are multiple other Code-violations. Firstly, in the scene in the Wilkes’s parlor at the barbecue when all the Southerners are plotting against the North, one of the men refers to the Yankees using the swear word which was allowed in the famous line at the end of the film; I have never heard this line, but I read about it. Secondly, in the battle and hospital scenes, there is an excessive amount of carnage; it is very little compared to the blood and corpses in modern films, but there are some disgusting moments. Also, there is the rather suggestive and later censored line said by the slave girl, “An’ what it takes to feed a hungry chil’ ah got.” To me, the most repellent moment was when a Yankee deserter was shot by Scarlett in the dilapidated Tara. The camera focuses on his being shot in the face, and there is a lot of blood. This was so unnecessary and quite surprising to me. Either he should have been shot in the torso, or the moment of his actual shooting shouldn’t have been shown; it would have been so easy to eliminate that one image. Finally, after this man has been shot, the bed-ridden Melanie comes downstairs in her nightgown because she heard the noise. The two women must remove the intruder’s body from the house, so Melanie takes off her nightgown so that they can use it to clean up the blood. Her nightgown is seen falling at her feet; although nothing more of her is shown than her bare shoulders, it is implied that she is totally naked. This seems very suggestive and somewhat unbelievable to me. Wouldn’t she be wearing anything under her nightgown, such as a light chemise?
Original Atlanta Opening
This film is a classic. Many regard it as the greatest motion picture ever made. It still holds the record of being the highest-earning film in history when adjusted for inflation. It won eight Academy Awards and was nominated for five more. This film has remained a beloved favorite for eighty years now. It is considered to be the brightest gem in Hollywood’s Golden Year. In recent years, the film has begun to receive criticism for its racial depictions. I think it is pathetic that people can’t just enjoy this film as a piece of entertainment and learn from its messages against slavery and oppression. Although slaves are shown in servitude, the Civil War brings greater hardship on their masters, who go from glorious luxury to poverty and desperation. Perhaps this could be viewed as a punishment to those who set themselves up as masters of other human beings. This film was made in a time of legal emancipation but lingering segregation for black people. Upon its initial release, many black people disliked the fact that African-American actors were playing such subservient roles in this film. However, actress Hattie McDaniels rebutted that she would rather play a maid for $700 a week than be a maid for $7 a week. Her role in this film won her a historic Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, since it was the first nomination and win at the Academy Awards for a black actor. The self-regulation of Gone with the Wind shows that the PCA fought to depict slaves and black people in general fairly and inoffensively as much as they fought to cut out risqueity and profanity. Without the PCA’s influence, David Selznick would have included insulting racial slurs galore. The important thing to remember about the PCA’s attitudes toward interracial relations is that the Code and its enforcers were not bigoted; they were just reflecting the views of audiences and censors throughout the nation, some of which were prejudiced and segregated.
In conclusion, there is a lot of talk about the word for which David Selznick fought so hard, and much of it is myth. It was not the first time that profanity was said in a motion picture; it wasn’t even the first Code film to allow the use of that word. Outside the film, it is the stuff of legend. Within the film, it is less spectacular than people make it out to be. If this movie were otherwise an entirely unobjectionable picture, that one word at the end would be shocking and irritating. However, considering the rest of the film, that one word is not that surprising. As we have explored in this article, many exceptions were granted to this production, largely because of the producer’s stubbornness. Mr. Selznick had a lot of nerve to ask for the additional favor of an exception about this usually-banned word. However, he knew that he was working with reasonable people, so he was not concerned about pushing too hard and losing his Seal of Approval altogether. Joe Breen was not like that.
The greatest myth surrounding Rhett Butler’s famous exit line is that it set a precedent at the Production Code Administration. Some say that profanity in films was common after that. Careful and thorough study of Joseph I. Breen’s Production Code enforcement shows one thing very clearly: he did not allow precedents to be set. When he said that a one-time exception was being made, he meant it. A bold filmmaker who tried to copy an exception would receive a firm no if he didn’t have similar special circumstances in his film. Similarly, it is inaccurate to state that things went downhill or drastically changed at any time during Mr. Breen’s tenure. Such an opinion can only arise from a distorted view of Code films. In every year between 1934 and 1954, one sees a mix of Code classifications. The majority of films are good, decent, and Code-compliant. However, in every year, one will find some films which are surprisingly un-Codish. They usually are very tame and wholesome by modern standards, but they do not comply with the Code’s high standards of acceptability. There are just as many of these films from the 1930s as in the post-war years. If anything, there are more, since it took a couple of years for the Code to make a deep impact on the film industry and American society. You hear about more troublesome films from later Code years because the PCA was stronger, decent films were the standard, and American principles were so high that small skirmishes became huge news items. There are many early Code films which were more controversial but didn’t cause a stir because the Code was just gaining a foothold.
For the most part, non-Code films exist because they were self-regulated by someone besides Mr. Breen. However, there were some cases, such as Gone with the Wind, in which the filmmaker was just particularly stubborn. These cases show us how fair the self-regulatory system was. Although the Code was law and a Seal of Approval was necessary for every film’s release, Joe Breen was not regarded as a fearsome dictator. He was more on the level of a busy director than an executive producer or mogul, despite the fact that he was more powerful than all the moguls of the major studios. He was a common man who was very approachable. He was happy to reason with filmmakers. Many writers and directors enjoyed the challenge which the give and take process of self-regulation offered. Some thought that breening was artistically stimulating, ultimately creating a higher-quality product. I think that that is one hundred percent true. Although there is something to be said for spontaneity, the film industry has always had a bad habit of making films as quickly and sloppily as possible. As a result, stories can easily be shallow, undeveloped, unrealistic, and flawed. The process of going over the script a few more times for decency purposes often leads to the discovery of plot and dialogue problems. Thus, the finished work is better artistically as well as morally.
Gone with the Wind was the movie that people said could never be made. It is a film which did not meet many people’s expectations. It did not live up to many of Margaret Mitchell’s ideas and concepts for the story. It did not receive all the revisions and deletions which the PCA wanted. It did not contain every element that David Selznick wanted to have in it. A film cannot be everything to everybody, especially the people behind the scenes. However, these inadequacies combined to make this the movie it is. The film, which is still the longest movie to win Best Picture, could not contain everything from the epic novel. Many cuts had to be made to control the time, and many changes were necessary to create a good film. The Code guided many of these changes. Although this film is not a perfect Code film a good Code film, or even a fair one, it is an excellent, classic motion picture. It may not live up to all the Code’s standards, but it is very much a Code film. The PCA’s rigorous self-regulation helped to make it the movie it is. Compared to excellent Code films, this film has a lot of objectionable qualities. What a glorious time the Code Era was, if this is an example of an objectionable film!
Thank you for reading. Again, I apologize for this article’s tardiness.
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