GOING AS DUTY
Gone with the Wind is often referred to as an entertainment event. But more like a duty: because it’s so much a part of our social and cultural fabric, we feel this obligation to see it and then later booze through it again and again with family and friends when it comes on the box during the holidays. With the book a blockbuster, the making of the movie indeed became something everyone wanted a say in, primarily the casting of Scarlett and Rhett. The American public had no doubts as to who Rhett must be played by, and there would be no rejection of the overwhelming popular vote, but Scarlett was a different matter. When we see the tests of the various actresses vying for the part (test film in b & w ran over 149,000 feet and color test film ran over 13,000 feet), it’s very clear that any established performer would distractingly carry her own personality to the part, thus depriving the enormous readership of a fresh “vision” of who Scarlett is. That was too risky for David O. Selznick, and for once we’re on his side (because those who knew him usually weren’t). Vivien Leigh is the legendary miracle who arrived almost too late; so goes the fable, had she not arrived on the night Atlanta was burning for the cameras, we might have had Paulette Goddard after all. Leigh’s beauty was new to American moviegoers, and because the public knew next to nothing about her, the interest in her could build without much bias. That she was English was carped about, that she was Laurence Olivier’s love interest didn’t hurt. (The couple jointly soared in two huge waves of popularity in 1939: when his Wuthering Heights was released some months before GWTW and when the public finally got to see her in the most coveted role of its time.) Though Selznick never stopped worrying, once in front of the camera, dressed to the Tara hilt and speaking with a delicious Southern accent, Leigh convinced just about everyone else that Scarlett had come to life. Unfortunately, to tiring, exasperating, cloying life: she never gets a break from Scarlett’s willed tantrums, her banquet of connivances, her shallowness and the net result is that the moral and racial issues of the Civil War saga get overshadowed. Rhett is nothing if not a masterful extension of Clark Gable’s own screen persona—even author Margaret Mitchell pretended to have him in mind all along—and he’s wrapped in what is easily the finest wardrobe he ever strutted around in. Reportedly reluctant to play the part and unhappy with original director George Cukor, he settles in as amused absorber of Leigh’s screen-required petulance and puerile caprice. But we sure miss these egotists when Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard infringe with their insufferable “noblesse oblige” routines. Gone with the Wind has been at least twice a “reserved seat” attraction—in major cities during its first release and in late 1967 when MGM blew up the Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1 to 2.20:1 to effectuate 70mm. Purists called it 70 mutilations per minute, with scene after scene of foreheads, chins and feet cut off, with color washed out, and distortion of the supreme fakery of William Cameron Menzies’ enhancements. Flaws and all, this curiosity became 1967’s twelfth highest grossing picture. Forgotten is that this wasn’t the first effort to widescreen the epic: in 1954, MGM expanded the original ratio to 1.75:1 and called it Metroscope.
Oscar wins: best picture, actress, director (Victor Fleming), supporting actress (Hattie McDaniel), screenplay, color cinematography, interior decoration, film editing. Special award to Menzies; Irving Thalberg Memorial Award to Selznick.
(Note: Over at Cinema Treasures, there’s debate about the 70mm version opening in the Loop at either the McVickers or the Michael Todd. After starting its initial run on 10/24/1967 at the Cinestage—here is the ad—and running 24 weeks, the epic moved over to the McVickers in April, 1968, running for 27 more weeks. In June, 1968, it was the premiere attraction at the UA Cinema 150 in Oak Brook, running 27 weeks. And yes, the 70mm job, reaching the end of serviceability, had four much shorter engagements at the Michael Todd, sans hardticket.)
ROLL OVER IMAGE & POSTER (Scrolling on screen from right to left, the title here is a combination of four images.)
Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2021) All Rights Reserved.